Brian Williams’s long timeout is over. After seven months of exile, the anchorman begins his rehabilitation Tuesday — demoted, much criticized and apparently humbled, but back doing TV news.
Williams will return not to NBC’s flagship “Nightly News,” which he anchored for 11 years, but to NBC’s smaller cable-news cousin, MSNBC. He will have a new and so far vaguely defined role — breaking-news anchor — as part of NBC’s effort to give low-rated MSNBC a newsier makeover during daylight hours. He will start with reports about Pope Francis’s visit to the United States.
Most of 2015 has been a wipeout for Williams. He was suspended without pay for six months in February following a “Nightly News” segment in which he exaggerated details of his travels in a military helicopter during the Iraq War in 2003. The story generated a cascade of other stories in which Williams allegedly punched up various details to heighten the drama surrounding him. The deluge turned him into a social media meme for dishonesty.
Overnight, Williams — once the most popular newsman on TV — disappeared like one of Spinal Tap’s unfortunate drummers.
He has been heard from only once since then. In his only moment of public self-reflection, an interview with “Today” show colleague Matt Lauer in June, he acknowledged that he told “stories that were not true,” including the helicopter account. He declined to say which stories or to detail his distortions.
As for why, Williams offered this: “It came from a bad place. It came from a sloppy choice of words. . . . It got mixed up; it got turned around in my mind.” He added: “What has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me and has been fixed, has been dealt with.” He didn’t say how. (Neither Williams nor his representative, Washington lawyer Robert Barnett, was available for interviews.)
NBC News has said little about the Williams affair or its handling of it — an irony, given that it is in the business of reporting newsworthy information. But people at the network have said that an internal investigation found at least 11 instances in which Williams gave exaggerated accounts of his exploits, mostly during appearances on entertainment programs. Some of these moments were assembled into a clip reel shown to the small cadre of executives who decided his fate.
In an interview Monday, Williams’s boss, NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andrew Lack, said that Williams has paid the price and earned the right to return. “I believe in second chances,” he said, “and I believe he can earn the trust of colleagues and viewers if we give him that chance. I thought he deserved it.”
He added, “From everything I can see and from my own observation over the years, viewers are a touch more forgiving than [journalists]. They can turn on the TV and come to their own conclusions about Brian.”
Lack said that Williams spent part of his hiatus driving alone across the country. “He did some reflecting,” he said. “It was a quiet and private time.” In the past two months, as he prepared for his return, Williams has “consumed a lot of news and information,” Lack said.
There was one personal detour: Williams helped plan the wedding of his daughter, Allison. The star of the HBO series “Girls” got married Saturday, in front of her fellow cast members and Bruce Springsteen, among others.
Despite Lack’s confidence in Williams, questions about him will probably linger in some viewers’ minds, said Mark Feldstein, a former TV news correspondent who is now a University of Maryland journalism professor.
Although the MSNBC gig is a demotion, Williams is lucky to have any job at all at the network, Feldstein said. In an earlier era, “he would have been banished forever. Those kinds of whoppers were completely verboten, and the penalty was execution.”
But Feldstein, who is writing a book about media scandals, said that NBC “doesn’t have a lot to lose” in bringing back Williams now. For one thing, MSNBC’s ratings are so low; for another, audiences no longer expect “voice of God” authority and credibility from anchors.
“Who knows?” he said. “MSNBC’s ratings may go up because of the rubber-necking factor to see how he does and because of the residual loyalty he has from his remaining fans.”
The MSNBC job has a back-to-the-future symmetry for Lack and Williams. In a previous stint at NBC in 1996, Lack oversaw the creation of MSNBC. He installed Williams as the channel’s signature anchor, a role that set Williams up to succeed Tom Brokaw as anchor of“NBC Nightly News” when Brokaw retired in 2004.
In the NBC News Washington bureau, where Williams was never a popular figure, his return has prompted “a rueful acceptance,” as one news staffer put it. The journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, noted another dubious bit of symmetry: Williams “crashed his career on exaggerating his role in breaking, live events . . . and now he’s going to anchor breaking news from the newsroom.”
Williams’s first assignment for MSNBC, covering Pope Francis’s visit, also has an ironic undercurrent.
One of Williams’s apparently exaggerated stories involves his shifting accounts of meeting Pope John Paul II at Catholic University in Washington in 1979, when Williams was a college student. He said that the pope blessed him and shook his hand when Williams encountered him outside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
In a 2005 account published by NBC News, Williams said that the encounter came about after he met a Secret Service agent “who spilled like a cup of coffee” and told him where the pope would be passing. In a version published later the same year by Esquire magazine, Williams made no reference to a Secret Service agent, saying that he was simply in the right place at the right time.