NBC suspended “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay for telling a false war story repeatedly, putting a major blemish on the career of one of America’s star newscasters.
The network made the decision after an investigation into Mr. Williams, including a now-debunked story he told about being on a helicopter that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade while he was covering the war in Iraq in 2003.
“By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News,” said NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke, in a memo to employees. He called what Mr. Williams did “inexcusable.”
Mr. Burke, who has a close relationship with Mr. Williams, broke the news of the suspension to the NBC anchor personally Tuesday morning in a meeting at Mr. Burke’s Central Park West residence in Manhattan. In his memo, he said that Mr. Williams “deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him.”
Although Mr. Williams is suspended for six months, an NBC insider cautioned that if the network’s investigation into him reveals more damaging embellishments that “there is no guarantee that he comes back.”
Lester Holt, the anchor of NBC’s weekend edition of “Nightly News” will take over as the primary anchor of the program. He has been filling in since Monday, after Mr. Williams took himself off the air amid the network’s investigation.
The controversy over Mr. Williams and the attention it received highlighted competing narratives about the relevance of the evening news in American life. On one level, with years of declining ratings and the rise of cable news, the major networks’ newscasts are a shadow of what they once were, reaching a shrinking and aging audience.
But the evening news is still an American institution, even in decline. The Williams scandal captivated the public in part because of the perception that in an era of unprecedented media noise and opinionated commentary he represented a trusted voice—someone above the fray.
The financial impact of his departure from “Nightly News” isn’t clear. Much of the advertising space on the program is purchased months ahead of time in the industry’s advance selling season known as the “upfronts.” If the program’s ratings slip considerably with Mr. Holt as anchor, advertisers would be entitled to ask for “make goods,” or complimentary airing of ads.
Even if Mr. Williams returns, advertisers are likely to press for better prices at this year’s upfront in May, media buyers said. The “Nightly News” now commands a premium over other news shows, in part because of Mr. Williams’s status as a trusted and likable figure. Advertisers could argue that, even if he returns, Mr. Williams will have lost some of his luster. The top advertisers on the show are pharmaceutical companies, who hawk their products to its mostly older audience.
For NBC News, the loss of Mr. Williams, whose newscast beats ABC’s “World News Tonight” and CBS’s “Evening News,” couldn’t come at a tougher time. NBC’s “Today,” once the top-rated morning news and talk program, has fallen behind ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Its Sunday political show “Meet the Press” also has taken a tumble in the ratings, and last year anchor David Gregory was pushed aside in favor of White House correspondent Chuck Todd.
Still, as far as NBC parent Comcast Corp. is concerned, the profit generated by the news division is insignificant. In 2013, Comcast had net income of $7.1 billion. While the company doesn’t breakout figures for its news unit, a person familiar with the operation said NBC News has profits that are north of $125 million annually and that “Nightly News” makes up about $30 million of that figure.
Mr. Williams, 55 years old, never finished college and was a volunteer fire fighter in high school. He possessed good looks, a quick wit and rose quickly through the ranks of television news, succeeding Mr. Brokaw at the desk of “Nightly News in 2004.
Now, he is one of the biggest faces of the network. His newscast is the top-rated with almost nine million viewers on average in the past year, according to Nielsen. Although that is a far cry from the heyday of the evening newscasts when around 20 million tuned in to watch Walter Cronkite on CBS, it is a respectable figure in today’s fragmented media landscape, with an array of competition from cable channels and streaming video.
The troubles for Mr. Williams started on Jan. 30 when he again told the story of being in a helicopter that was under fire. while he was in Iraq in 2003. Although he had told the story on CBS’s “The Late Show With David Letterman ” in 2013, This time around there was pushback from some veterans when the story appeared on the NBC News Facebook page. Crew-members of the helicopter in question commented that Mr. Williams wasn’t on the flight but instead had arrived about an hour later. Mr. Williams subsequently recanted his version of the events and apologized both on Facebook and on the “NBC Nightly News.”
But the apology didn’t quiet the storm that was brewing around Mr. Williams. He was heavily criticized by media watchdogs and his career was suddenly put under the microscope. Current and former NBC News executives say that Mr. Williams always had a flair for storytelling and that many took his tales with a grain of salt.
Since acknowledging that the Iraq helicopter story was false late last week, questions have arisen about some of Mr. Williams other stories over the years including from his coverage of Hurricane Katrina where, among other things, he claimed to have seen a body float past his hotel.
NBC News President Deborah Turness said the network’s inquiry into Mr. Williams continues and includes remarks he has made off-air as well as on NBC. Mr. Williams is a regular on the late-night talk show circuit where he is known for his quick wit.
“As managing editor and anchor of ‘Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news divisions at all times,” Ms. Turness said.
by Joe Flint