Journalists in NBC News’s powerful Washington bureau expressed strong opposition to the potential return of suspended anchorman Brian Williams during a contentious meeting with the head of the network’s news division in February.
In a sometimes angry series of comments, the journalists told NBC News President Deborah Turness in the private meeting in Washington that Williams’s embellished statements about his reporting exploits had damaged NBC’s credibility and that he should not be permitted to return to the anchor chair, according to several people who attended the session.
The meeting — details of which have not been made public before — was called after Williams’s six-month suspension from anchoring “NBC Nightly News,” the network’s signature newscast. Turness met with the division’s employees in New York and Washington to answer questions about the suspension and to get their feedback on the crisis enveloping the company.
One person who attended the Washington meeting described the overall tone as a “bloodbath” for Williams. But another news employee tempered that characterization, describing the atmosphere merely as “very raw” and colleagues as “shocked.” The individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In any case, the bureau staff offered a strong rebuke of Williams, whose troubles were still fresh in the news at the time. Among those who spoke against him were two of the network’s on-air correspondents, attendees said.
The journalists told Turness that the scandal had made them embarrassed to deal with their sources and to identify themselves as NBC News employees. Turness, a British TV news executive who was hired by NBC two years ago, listened attentively but made no specific commitments, the attendees said.
An NBC News spokesman declined to comment.
NBC’s Washington news bureau is a critical player in the production of “Nightly News.” Its reporters and producers staff beats that generate the bulk of the stories on the newscast, such as the White House, Congress, the Justice Department, the State Department and the Pentagon. The bureau also produces “Meet the Press” on Sundays and NBC’s political and election-night coverage, which Williams traditionally has anchored.
As such, the bureau must work in close concert with Williams and the program’s New York-based producers. In addition to anchoring the program, Williams was its managing editor, which gave him the authority to decide which stories got on the air.
Williams was suspended without pay on Feb. 10 for statements he made about his reporting in Iraq that proved to be inflated. NBC is conducting an internal investigation to determine whether he exaggerated other stories about his reporting. The bureau’s restive comments suggest that Williams’s working relationships may be severely damaged and that his return to anchoring would be fraught with internal dissent.
NBC employees in New York, however, caution that the meeting took place during a period of peak stress for the division and that some of the more extreme sentiments may have calmed down in the weeks since then.
It’s also not clear how much sway the division’s rank and file will have in NBC’s decision about Williams’s fate. The preferences of viewers and advertisers probably will have a major impact.
The network has not said what it intends to do about Williams, whose suspension is over in early August. Some advertising buyers expect NBC and its parent company, Comcast, to make a determination before the network’s annual meeting with advertisers on May 11, but NBC has not given a timetable.
Veteran newsman Lester Holt has replaced Williams on a temporary basis. “Nightly News’” ratings have fallen since Williams went off the air, and the broadcast lost its long streak of ratings victories to ABC’s “World News Tonight” in early April. However, the race remains close.
After the Williams fiasco, NBC rehired its former news president, Andrew Lack, placing him in charge of NBC News and MSNBC. Turness, who had been laboring to turn around the “Today” show and “Meet the Press” before the Williams incident exploded, now reports to Lack.