Brian Williams, who presents NBC’s Nightly News, was told by the station’s chief executive Steve Burke that his actions were inexcusable and jeopardised the trust he has built up with viewers during his decade as the network’s lead presenter. However, he said Williams deserved a second chance.
Williams apologised last week for saying he was in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade while covering the Iraq War in 2003. Instead, another helicopter flying ahead of his was hit, and some veterans involved in the mission challenged his version of events. The public reaction put NBC News on a crisis footing.
NBC News president Deborah Turness said in a memo Williams “misrepresented” the incident while covering the war.
“It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues,” Turness said. “This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.”
Turness said Lester Holt would continue to stand in for Williams as anchor.
While NBC News avoids a backlash from Williams’ supporters, the action jeopardises the network’s competitive position. Nightly News has been at the top of the US ratings dating back to Tom Brokaw’s time in the anchor chair more than a decade ago. But rival ABC’s World News Tonight, with new anchor David Muir, has been gaining in second place and Scott Pelley has built a newscast that appeals to traditionalists at CBS.
Besides angry veterans, Williams’ false story, his initial apology made him a target of online ridicule with his claim that he misremembered key details. Internet memes jokingly placed Williams at the scene of other events including the Last Supper or the first walk on the Moon.
“The penalty is tough, which it should be,” said Bill Wheatley, a former NBC News executive who now teaches journalism at Columbia University. “When he comes back on the air, it will be up to Brian to demonstrate to his viewers and colleagues that he deserves their trust. If he works hard and focuses on his journalism, they’ll forgive him.”
Williams received some key support in the last 24 hours. Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly, frequently a critic of NBC News, suggested on Jimmy Kimmel’s show that Williams should keep his job unless more stories come out. Columnist David Brooks in the New York Times suggested there was a need for forgiveness in instances of wrongdoing.
Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, who has hosted Williams as a guest 22 times, criticised Williams for vanity. But he had sharper words for media outlets going after Williams.
“I am happy,” Stewart said. “Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.”
Similar uncharted territory for NBC News and Williams is how they handle his return in six months – does he come back to work or does he offer a detailed interview on NBC or with another, impartial source?
“Can Brian Williams come back? Maybe,” said Jeff Greenfield, former CNN and CBS News reporter and commentator.
How Williams spends the six months, whether he does volunteer work, helps veterans and seeks professional help, will be interesting, he said. Whatever he does, it will be watched closely.
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