In announcing the discipline, NBC News President Deborah Turness wrote, “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.”
In a separate statement on the decision, Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, pronounced himself happy with the penalty: “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.”
There is credit to be accorded here. NBC News clearly took this matter seriously and has scrambled to figure out the depth of the problem. Pretty deep, it appears. And putting your anchor on a six-month suspension is a drastic move for an industry as competitive as network news. Williams’s absence will carry uncertain implications for the standing of “NBC Nightly News” in the ratings. Although there is absolutely no good way to handle revelations that your franchise anchor has been embellishing his reportorial adventures for years, there are many worse ways, too.
Yet once again, corporate America has shown its staid limitations when handling misconduct among its ranks. Suspensions accomplish a great deal for an organization, including demoralizing the scofflaw, providing temporary and ill-begotten promotions for the fill-ins (how great does Lester Holt feel to be occupying the anchor chair under these circumstances?) and, most important, doing nothing to address or undo the underlying causes of the problem to begin with.
That last one is where this Williams punishment produces questions: So the guy’s on ice now — does that mean that he won’t be giving his viewers an immediate, complete account of how his transgressions? Will he provide such a mea culpa from his home office while on suspension? Will he do that upon his reentry?
We put that question to NBC News and didn’t receive an immediate response.
Independent of Williams’s activities, how will NBC News roll? Will it show its work, as any good math teacher requires? Its quiet protestations that it was never running an investigation of Williams suggest that it’ll be releasing no report, no findings. University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Feldstein chimes in via e-mail: “Is NBC going to issue a public report with its results? Will the network tell the public how many people its investigators interviewed? Was the focus limited to just the one admitted lie or did it include the other allegations of false reporting? These are pretty critical questions to be answered if Williams is really going to return to the air in six months.”
The actual purpose of suspensions inheres in PR: They reassure an organization’s leaders that they’re being tough, that the wrongdoer isn’t getting off easy. Burke’s comment about the suspension’s “severe” nature speaks to this dynamic — that’s what NBC leadership wants people to take away from the moment.
Trouble is, the suspension will do little else. Williams will disappear for a spell, even as he’s “committed to winning back everyone’s trust.” Unexplained is how he intends to do that from the beach.
All,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.”Deborah