The trial of Brian Williams is not quite over, and the question of whether he’ll be banished or welcomed back is far from settled.
Despite rumors that NBC News has completed its reportedly damning internal review of the suspended Nightly News anchor’s tall tales about his adventures in journalism, the probe isn’t finished and its conclusions are not fully baked.
So when NBC News Chairman Andy Lack and his second-in-command, news president Deborah Turness, make their presentation to Monday’s gathering of station general managers in Manhattan, Williams’s fate—and that of weekend anchor Lester Holt, who has been holding his own as Williams’s replacement on NBC’s flagship weeknight newscast for the past three months—will be the elephant in the room.
What seems clear to NBC News insiders is that given the damage inflicted on Williams’s professional reputation—especially by a recent flurry of apparently orchestrated leaks suggesting that he had engaged in as many as 11 instances of exaggerations or embellishments during public appearances on and off the air over the past several years—it will be difficult to restore him to the Nightly News anchor desk he occupied successfully for a decade.
“What if there’s a story about a presidential candidate who lied or embellished his resume?” said an NBC News veteran who, because of the sensitivity of the subject, spoke on condition of anonymity. “How do you have Brian Williams in that chair, intro-ing that story, without all of America guffawing?”
A second NBC News veteran expressed concern that the 55-year-old Williams—judging by quotes in various news stories attributed to “friends” of the anchor—might not fully grasp the gravity of his mistakes.
Indeed, Newsday’s well-connected television columnist Verne Gay recently reported that Williams was “almost certainly expecting a return to the anchor chair by this summer, his period of penance behind him...I hear he thinks a lot of the background noise is confined to the ‘industry’ or to the press, and that the rest of the world could not care less about what’s happened.”
While Williams’s attorney, Robert Barnett, “is fighting tooth and nail to get him his job back”—not negotiating a partial payout of Williams’s reported $50 million, five-year contract, according to an NBC News veteran—the anchor is likely not hearing what he needs to hear.
“It’s a tricky area,” this person said. “Sometimes a hired gun will tell you what you want to hear. If Brian’s goal is a comeback, the hired gun’s goal is a comeback. They say, ‘It won’t be pretty, but we can fix this, we can make this happen.’ They’re not going to say, ‘Look, buddy, you have got to get a grip on reality. You are gonna continue to be tabloid fodder, and if you think you’ve had it bad so far, your return to NBC is gonna be a total shit show.’”
Another wrinkle, and not a trivial one, is that the 55-year-old Holt, a respected and well-liked figure among his colleagues, has narrowly lost in the Nielsens in recent weeks to ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir, but he has managed to stay in the game—with zero promotion.
The fact that Holt is doing relatively well at the formerly top-rated Nightly News—whose viewership began eroding more than a year ago under Williams—complicates any decision to take him off Nightly in favor of Williams or another anchor—say, the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie.
It is lost on no one that if Holt were to be named Williams’s permanent successor, he would make history as the first African-American solo anchor of an American broadcast network’s flagship newscast.
A prominent black broadcast journalist who knows Holt told The Daily Beast: “If Brian does not come back and Lester does not get the job, it’s going to get ugly. You can only imagine.”
Monday’s affiliates meeting takes place on the same day as the NBC Upfront at Radio City Music Hall—a usually extravagant presentation (in which Williams, with his showbiz flair, no doubt would have participated, if not emceed) where the network will unveil its fall schedule to advertisers and journalists.
During the separate affiliates meeting, local television executives, a group that represents NBC’s 11 network-owned and 222 affiliated stations nationwide, will likely hear that NBC News’s chief investigative producer Richard Esposito and NBC Universal general counsel Kim Harris are still putting the finishing touches on their Williams review, assembling facts and talking to witnesses—the anchor’s on-air colleagues, producers, camera operators, and sound technicians, among others.
Once their report is done, Williams and his attorney, Barnett, will be given time to digest and respond to it before a decision comes down—possibly as early as May 22, the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend. But sources close to Lack, the decider, say he’s not rushing to judgment.
“The station managers will want to know, ‘When will this be resolved? When can we start promoting Nightly to our viewers and our advertisers?’” a television industry executive told The Daily Beast.
The 67-year-old Lack, who successfully ran NBC News from 1993 to 2000 before moving on to top jobs at Sony BMG and Bloomberg LLC, was brought in two months ago by NBC Universal chief Steve Burke—the corporate equivalent of a 911 call—to fix NBC’s troubled news division for which Brian Williams is the highest-profile but surely not the only problem.
Flagging ratings at MSNBC and, even worse, the Today show, are also on Lack’s plate.
Lack, who took over NBC News after quitting his latest job overseeing the federally-funded Broadcast Board of Governors, is by all accounts fond of the embattled anchor and—during his first term running the news division back in the 1990s—nurtured Williams’s rise through the ranks and was key to positioning him to succeed longtime Nightly anchor Tom Brokaw in December 2004.
Still, until his recent return, Lack had been away from NBC News for 13 years and an insider describes him as “an honest broker” in the current mess.
Several NBC veterans said Lack is keeping an open mind, wishing his old friend well, but determined to base his decision on the internal review and his own evaluation of Williams’s missteps, on viewer attitudes gleaned from Nielsen ratings, along with other public opinion surveys and marketing studies, on the opinions of Turness and Burke and other top executives at Comcast, NBC’s parent company, and—to a lesser extent—on the opinions of the NBC News rank and file, with whom the insular, self-directed Williams has not been especially popular.
“Either way, Andy wants to own this decision,” said another NBC News insider. “He wants to go through it in detail—watch every single piece of video...Frankly, it’s nice to have somebody in there who can own it, so everybody will be like, ‘OK, we can live with the decision, whatever it is.’”