NBC News has decided the fate of Brian Williams, suspending the popular Nightly News anchor for six months without pay.
"We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months. The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately," said NBC News president Deborah Turness in a memo to staff. "We let Brian know of our decision earlier today. Lester Holt will continue to substitute Anchor the NBC Nightly News."
The suspension comes four days after Turness confirmed that the network was looking into Williams’ account of the Iraq story. "In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field," added Turness. "As managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times."
In the memo, Turness said the internal review was still ongoing and the decision to suspend Williams was made jointly by her, Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group and NBCU CEO Steve Burke.
The controversy started last week when newspaper Stars and Stripesfound that Williams had been inaccurately recalling a story from the Iraq war in which he claimed he was on a helicopter shot at by ground fire.
Williams admitted to Stars and Stripes that he “misremembered” the 2003 tale, one that he had been telling for more than a decade, including to Late Show host David Letterman in 2013. Williams followed up with an on-air apology on the Feb. 4 broadcast of Nightly News, though it only appeared to make matters worse as it was poorly received.
Williams’ 2005 Hurricane Katrina story also came under scrutiny.
The suspension appears to put to rest the controversy — at least until Williams returns — and lets the embattled Turness and her boss Fili-Krushel begin to move on from what became a major crisis. It’s been no secret that NBC’s news division has been struggling across the board, though Today has closed the ratings gap with Good Morning America somewhat. Nightly News had been NBC News’ lone bright spot.
Under Williams, who recently signed a new multiyear contract, Nightly News has been the most-watched evening newscast for over five years running. In the most recent week ending Feb. 6, Nightly News averaged over 10 million viewers and 2.5 million among the adults 25-54 news demo, leading in both measures.
Even as many in the media and in other circles called for NBC to oust Williams permanently, NBC would have had to find something more damning than embellishing a war story. Williams’ predecessor Tom Brokaw offered only tepid support for Williams while Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was more emphatic in his defense during an appearance on Monday’s Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The suspension is similar to how CBS handled 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan, who took a seven-month leave of absence in 2013 following a faulty Benghazi report.
Below is the full memo from Turness:
We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months. The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately. We let Brian know of our decision earlier today. Lester Holt will continue to substitute Anchor the NBC Nightly News.
Our review, which is being led by Richard Esposito working closely with NBCUniversal General Counsel Kim Harris, is ongoing, but I think it is important to take you through our thought process in coming to this decision.
While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.
In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.
As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.
Steve Burke, Pat Fili and I came to this decision together. We felt it would have been wrong to disregard the good work Brian has done and the special relationship he has forged with our viewers over 22 years. Millions of Americans have turned to him every day, and he has been an important and well-respected part of our organization.
As I’m sure you understand, this was a very hard decision. Certainly there will be those who disagree. But we believe this suspension is the appropriate and proportionate action.
This has been a difficult time. But NBC News is bigger than this moment. You work so hard and dedicate yourselves each and every day to the important work of bringing trusted, credible news to our audience. Because of you, your loyalty, your dedication, NBC News is an organization we can – and should - all be proud of. We will get through this together.
Steve Burke asked me to share the following message.
“This has been a painful period for all concerned and we appreciate your patience while we gathered the available facts. 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. Brian’s life’s work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”