Senior NBC officials seriously considered firing anchor Brian Williams because he lied to his viewers about riding in a military helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq war, according to a top network official.
The ultimate decision to suspend Williams for six months was made after an internal investigation unearthed other “instances of exaggeration,” according to a person familiar with intense behind-the-scenes discussions between network officials and Williams.
During those talks, Williams failed to secure a promise that he can return to the anchor chair he has occupied for the past decade, according to two network sources, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive personnel issue.
The suspension represents a stunning fall for Williams, whose wry, likable style helped propel his “Nightly News” broadcast to the top of the network-news ratings race and also made him a popular guest on late-night talk shows.
Williams and his Washington-based attorney, Robert B. Barnett, declined to comment.
The Williams saga traces back to an appearance he made at a New York Rangers hockey game with a soldier who provided security for the anchor and his reporting team in Iraq in 2003. The arena’s public address announcer said the soldier was with Williams after his Chinook helicopter was “hit and crippled by enemy fire.” Williams featured the appearance on his “Nightly News” broadcast Jan. 30. However, a flight engineer on the helicopter that was hit posted a message on Facebook saying Williams was not on the same aircraft.
In full damage-control mode, Williams told Stars and Stripes, the newspaper that first reported the flight engineer’s remarks, that he “would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other.” Williams also posted an apology on Facebook, explaining that he’d actually been on a trailing helicopter, and he delivered another mea culpa on the Feb. 4 “NBC Nightly News” broadcast.
“This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not,” Williams told viewers.
The apology did little to stem the controversy. Williams was being roundly mocked by commentators at other news organizations. Within NBC, the crisis was ballooning.
“It was obvious it fell flat,” a person familiar with the discussions said. “The world felt it was not contrite or fulsome enough.”
NBC officials were suspicious of the on-air apology, particularly the anchor’s statement that he had “made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” a network source said.
“Ninety percent of the people knew it was not misremembering, it was making it up,” the source said.
Internally, Williams, 55, was fighting hard to preserve his reputation and his job. He was calling people at all hours, looking for some kind of an escape route, according to a top network official. “They were clinging to the, ‘Gee I just conflated my facts here’ story,” the network official said.
But his task was made harder because serious questions were being raised about stories he’d repeated for years about his coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — a career-defining, award-winning assignment for an anchor with a relatively thin reporting résumé who was eager to cement his journalistic bona fides.
Williams had made several questionable claims in interviews and a documentary: He witnessed a suicide at the Superdome in New Orleans, saw a body floating by his hotel in the French Quarter and had contracted dysentery from accidentally ingesting floodwater.
Throughout Thursday, Williams was pounded by bloggers and newspaper columnists, who noted that he hadn’t reported the suicide when he was on assignment in New Orleans, that the French Quarter had largely remained dry during the hurricane and that there were no reported outbreaks of dysentery.
But inside NBC, the Iraq fabrication was seen as the most damaging. “When helicopter crew members get shot down and you attach yourself to what they went through, it’s pretty outrageous,” a person familiar with internal discussions said.
The idea of a self-imposed suspension was being discussed. Williams was giving network officials the impression that a self-suspension would be enough. But more information was coming in about New Orleans and the helicopter incident.
“It kept piling up, and his story seemed less and less credible,” a network official said.
On Friday, the company’s corporate executives dived deeper into a drama that had been mostly playing out in the newsroom. Steve Burke, an executive vice president of NBC’s parent company, Comcast, got heavily involved, a network official said.
For Burke, who is also chief executive officer of NBC Universal, taking control of the situation was a delicate matter. He and Williams are close personally, and it was not easy for Burke, the network official said.
As the negotiations spilled into the weekend, network officials were growing more uneasy about Williams returning to the anchor chair.
“We felt it was very important that he come off the air,” a person familiar with the discussions said. “We didn’t want to force him off the air, because we didn’t want to be perceived as rushing to judgment. All the facts weren’t in. But you can’t have an anchor on the air while his judgment and credibility are being questioned on every front page in America. The priority for us was to get him off the air, not to demonstrate that we were mad at him.”
With that in mind, the network officials agreed to let Williams take himself off the air for several days. An announcement was made that weekend anchor Lester Holt would fill his slot.
The internal discussions were “not contentious,” a person familiar with the talks said. Williams was represented by his attorney, Barnett. NBC Universal News Group Chairman Pat Fili-Krushel and NBC News President Deborah Turness handled negotiations along with Burke.
There were also consultations with other senior network officials, including Tom Brokaw, whom Williams succeeded as anchor of “NBC Nightly News” in 2004. It’s well known within the journalism industry that Brokaw and Williams have had a testy relationship over the years.
But the final decision was Burke’s.
Burke was considering three options, a person familiar with the talks said: One was outright firing. The second was a lesser suspension. The third was a suspension without conditions.
Williams was seeking a short suspension with the right to come back to NBC while maintaining his position as managing editor, a top network official said.
“That was never going to happen,” the official said.
As recently as a few days ago, Burke was torn between firing Williams and the lengthy suspension. For Williams, a suspension without a promise that he would get his job back was tantamount to a firing.
On Tuesday night, the decision was final. NBC announced that Williams would be suspended for six months without pay. He reportedly makes $10 million a year.
Williams is not allowed to make appearances without the approval of people at the network, the network official said.
The suspension was the culmination of a long period of internal concerns. NBC officials had been warned for some time about Williams’s exaggerations and self-aggrandizement, the network official said.
People were sending up red flags about a year ago, the official said.
What started out as eye-rolling escalated into genuine concern, but no one took action earlier because the statements that drew attention of staffers were not aired on the news broadcast.
That changed with the hockey-game report. Once Williams used the broadcast to claim his helicopter had been shot down, he crossed a line that led to Tuesday’s decision. “When it surfaced, it was prima facie. It was Stars and Stripes and [military] crew members. How much more authentic can you get?” the network official said.
The announcement to suspend Williams hit the newsroom hard.
“It was very painful,” one NBC News journalist said. “It was sort of like walking into a living room and someone telling you that your dad is not coming home. I can’t tell you how much it hurts. We all worked so hard at establishing our credibility, and it feels like our credibility has been badly damaged.
“People are angry at Brian.”
NBC journalists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have been warned not to speak publicly, told The Washington Post that they were stunned by how quickly Williams fell from one of the highest perches in broadcast news.
They also said they were not surprised by the allegations that Williams had inflated his involvement in news stories and what he supposedly witnessed while on assignment. They said his exaggerations were an open secret at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and became an inside joke, mostly because they were not made on “Nightly News.”
“We lost people in Iraq; to us it’s not a joke,” a longtime NBC producer said. “It’s not something you glorify or pound your chest about. You don’t need to inflate these things. There’s just an overwhelming sense of loss.”
There is also a sense that the newsroom has been adrift since Comcast Cable took over NBC Universal in 2011. NBC journalists said editors who once kept a close watch over the broadcast have departed, leaving Williams to operate with few meaningful checks and balances.
As managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” Williams held enormous sway over story selection and over which reporters would appear on his broadcasts. Journalists with serious reputations were forced out or left on their own after the Comcast takeover. The newsroom hasn’t been the same since, several NBC reporters and producers said.
“There are few people who talk to Brian in an authoritative way,” a former top NBC news manager said. “There really wasn’t anyone over him to say anything to him or to question his facts. There was no one managing him. There was constant changing to his whims.
“No one said, ‘No.’ ”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.