By: Kris Schneider
On Tuesday, February 10, 2015, Brian Williams, anchor of the top-rated “NBC Nightly News,” was suspended by NBC News for six months without pay following days of controversy over statements he made regarding numerous news stories he has reported on over the years. Williams, 55, recently celebrated his 10th anniversary in the anchor chair in October 2014, and two months later, signed a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract to remain the anchor of America’s number one evening news broadcast through 2019.
The controversy leading up to Williams’ suspension stemmed from his coverage of the Iraq Invasion just over twelve years ago in 2003. Williams and his NBC crew were traveling with an American helicopter crew, consisting of multiple Chinook choppers. During a mission north of the battlefront, one of the choppers sustained heavy enemy fire, including being fired upon with a Rocket-Propelled Grenade, which tore a hole in the rear of the Chinook and forced an emergency landing. Williams was not aboard this chopper, and according to other members of the platoon, he and the NBC crew did not arrive until 45 minutes had passed. After accurately reporting on the incident immediately following the emergency, Williams changed the story. He began to place himself inside the helicopter which had sustained the enemy fire. Most recently, Williams repeated this claim during his January 30 broadcast, during a segment to honor the soldier who was in charge of overseeing the safety of the NBC crew. The segment was posted to the “Nightly News” Facebook page, where soldiers who had served in the platoon subsequently commented that Williams was not on the damaged helicopter. Military magazine “Stars and Stripes” broke the scandal with an exclusive report which included more testimony from soldiers who had served in the unit associated with the NBC coverage in 2003.
On Wednesday, February 4, Williams issued a formal on-air apology during his daily broadcast. He claimed that he had “misremembered” the events of twelve years ago, and called the January 30 segment a “bungled attempt” to honor the veteran who had kept them safe. He clarified that he was not aboard the damaged chopper, and expressed his regret for his “mistake.” In the hours and days following the apology, media and social media took the story and ran with it. “#BrianWilliamsMisremembers” was the top trend on Twitter in the United States for some time, before simply “Brian Williams” became a trending topic for days. Many, including other journalists, news analysts, and industry experts predicted that Williams would not be able to bounce back after these damning revelations which spurred even more trouble.
The following day, a newspaper in New Orleans discovered that, during the broadcast coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Williams had claimed to see a floating body outside of his hotel window in the famed French Quarter. He also stated later that he contracted a gastrointestinal illness from accidentally ingesting floodwater. Both of these claims appear to be false; the first due to the fact that the French Quarter did not flood nearly as badly as other parts of the city, and the second because there are no other health records from the storm’s aftermath indicating any such illness.
On Friday evening, February 6, Deborah Turness, President of NBC News, sent a memo to all staff of the news organization, stating in part that, “This morning at the Editorial Exchange, we both addressed the wider group. Brian apologized once again, and specifically expressed how sorry he is for the impact this has had on all of you and on this proud organization.” Ms. Turness had declined to comment further on the issue of Williams’ future at the time.
NBC’s Lester Holt, anchor of the weekend editions of “NBC Nightly News” and “Today,” as well as the host of “Dateline NBC,” was named temporary replacement as Williams sorted out the issues facing him. The Monday, February 9 broadcast with Holt at the anchor desk showed ratings potentially stabilizing, with NBC’s program pulling its customary lead over ABC and CBS in total viewers, and ABC taking the cake for key advertising demographics.
On Tuesday, February 10, just under an hour following Holt’s “Nightly News” broadcast, Turness, in a joint release with Stephen Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, announced that Williams would be suspended for six months without pay. Burke stated in part that, “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.” Burke went on to say that he believes Williams deserves a second chance, and that the organization will stand behind him as he works to regain the public’s trust.
Although Williams’ suspension is due to be up in August, many in the industry and within NBC News believe that Williams has no chance at returning to the “Nightly News” anchor chair. It is not so much that people don’t like Williams, rather there is now a lack of trust that is crucial in this industry. It is reported that executives at NBC and Comcast, NBC’s parent company, have a short list in the event that Williams does not return. That being said, there are already possible plans for Williams’ return circulating the Internet, with everything from a heartfelt mea culpa on his own broadcast to a tell-all interview on the network’s morning show, “Today.”
Only time will tell what the future has in store for the man who just two weeks ago was one of the most trusted people in America.