Brian Williams will return to NBC News but will no longer serve as anchor of its signature newscast, “Nightly News,” various media outlets reported Wednesday evening.
Lester Holt, who has anchored the program since Williams was suspended in February, will continue to be the face of the program.
NBC suspended Williams for six months in February for telling a series of exaggerated or untrue stories about his reporting experiences, including saying on “Nightly News” in late January that he traveled on a U.S. military helicopter that was damaged by rocket fire at the start of the Iraq War in 2003. In fact, Williams was in another helicopter that was not damaged.
NBC News has determined that it will take Williams back, according to multiple reports. It’s unclear what role he’ll fulfill or when he will resume working at the network. CNN reported Wednesday night that NBC could announce Williams’s return as early as Thursday, but that report could not be confirmed.
NBC’s decision is a surprising one, given that Williams appeared to mortally wound himself by his various statements on such programs as “The Daily Show,” “The Tonight Show” and David Letterman’s “Late Show.”
The news media picked apart his various tales and found factual errors, inconsistencies and uncorroborated assertions.
In recent days, NBC executives have discussed the possibility of Williams returning to MSNBC, where he was the leading anchor when the cable network debuted in 1996. But they stressed that no decision had been made.
NBC executives who are deciding the suspended anchorman’s future have reviewed an internal video compilation of his exaggerated stories, a clip reel that apparently was decisive in determining Williams’s status at the network.
The video, produced by the team of NBC journalists assigned to review Williams’s statements in media appearances, makes a vivid case against the anchor, according to people familiar with it, isolating a number of questionable statements Williams has made.
Williams, suspended without pay, has remained silent since then as his statements have come under scrutiny.
The compilation video has been closely held. Among the few who have seen it are Stephen Burke, chief executive of NBC Universal, and NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, the principal executives determining Williams’s status.
People inside the network, who spoke about the video on the condition of anonymity because negotiations with Williams are continuing, said it could be used as leverage against him or as a basis to reassign him to a lesser role within NBC or MSNBC.
One of Williams’s questionable accounts is about receiving a piece of the top-secret Black Hawk helicopter that crash-landed during the U.S. military raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.
In a series of appearances on CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman” after the raid, Williams described his relationship with SEAL Team 6, the elite Navy unit that assassinated bin Laden, and implied that the relationship led to his receiving the coveted memento.
In May 2012, Williams told Letterman that he flew into Baghdad just after the war’s 2003 start “on a blackout mission at night with elements” of the commando team. He said he struck up an acquaintance with one of the team’s members, who later sent him a service knife as a gift.
In January 2013, Williams told Letterman the following: “About six weeks after the bin Laden raid, I got a white envelope, and in it was a thank-you note, unsigned. And attached to it was a piece of the fuselage, the fuselage from the blown-up Black Hawk in that courtyard. And I don’t know how many pieces survived, but I — ”
“Sent to you by one of the — ” Letterman asked.
“Yeah, one of my friends,” Williams answered.
In a radio interview in February 2014, Williams said he had “friends among the Special Operations folks in the Pentagon, and I have a piece of the fuselage of the chopper that didn’t make it in Abbottabad. It’s one of the toughest things to get, and the president has a piece of it, as well. And I didn’t ask any questions, [but] I have a pretty good idea [where it came from]. But I’ve spent time during the coverage of these dual wars with members of the very same group who were there.”
Although current and former SEAL members have doubted that Williams embedded with the commandos, at least one aspect of the story appears to be true — that Williams did receive a piece of the helicopter, but not from the SEALs, according to several people at NBC.
The source of the souvenir was an unidentified journalist from another news organization who visited bin Laden’s compound after the raid and collected pieces of the aircraft, they said.
That journalist passed some of these pieces to Robert Windrem, a NBC News reporter and “Nightly News” producer who specializes in national security. Windrem sent a piece to Williams, knowledgeable persons said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Windrem did not respond to requests for comment.
One person at NBC who is familiar with the incident said Williams might have been mistaken but wasn’t dishonest in implying that the SEALs had sent him the helicopter piece. Given that there was no identifiable sender, Williams assumed it had come from the elite military team, he said.