Brian Williams, the face of the NBC News division and among its most visible personalities for the past decade, has been suspended from his post at Nightly News for six months without pay after it was determined that he had, on multiple occasions, offered a account of a 2003 incident in Iraq, claiming that he had been riding in a Chinook helicopter that was forced to land after it was hit by enemy fire.
Lester Holt, who has been filling in for Williams since Feb. 9, will continue as interim anchor of Nightly News.
"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," NBC News president Deborah Turness said in a memo, adding that "this was a very hard decision. Certainly there will be those who disagree. But we believe this suspension is the appropriate and proportionate action."
NBCUniversal executives, including Universal CEO Steve Burke, News Group CEO Pat Fili-Krushel and Turness, had earlier mulled a lengthy suspension for Williams in addition to garnering a full-throated on-air apology from the newsman. Williams met with Burke at Burke's Manhattan apartment on Tuesday morning, a meeting initiated by Burke. The two men are known to have a warm relationship; they regularly lunch together in the executive dining room at NBC's 30 Rock headquarters.
A former volunteer firefighter, Williams has always been a friendly interlocutor of the armed services. But his penchant for describing himself as closer to the danger than he actually was violated an unspoken military code. And it was the flight engineer of that Chinook helicopter in Iraq who first publicly blew the whistle on Williams with a comment on the NBC News Facebook page. "Sorry dude," wrote Lance Reynolds. "I don't remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened." Military publication Stars and Stripes first reported the reaction to the Facebook post, which was intended to honor a military veteran, U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak, and from there the story snowballed.
"I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," Williams said on the Feb. 4 Nightly News broadcast. "I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire; I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert."
It subsequently emerged that he was likely in a chopper that was an hour behind, not necessarily in a following aircraft. And his announcement days later that he was taking himself off of his broadcast only made it appear as if no one was in charge at NBC News.
As Williams' record came under increasing scrutiny, questions also were raised about his coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Israel's conflict with Hezbollah in 2006. His perfunctory and less than transparent apology earned him — and his bosses at NBC News — more criticism.
His enthusiastic courting of the media, where he was a familiar presence on late-night television, has also been recently criticized. During an August 2006 appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, he told Stewart that he was in an Israeli military helicopter over northern Israel when Hezbollah rockets flew "just beneath" them. And it was on Late Show With David Letterman that Williams was found to offer the most egregiously misleading recounting of his Iraq trip. As the scandal was emerging, the Letterman appearance — preserved in perpetuity online — became the smoking gun.
Williams took over the Nightly anchor chair from Tom Brokaw in December 2004, and his reporting from flood-ravaged New Orleans during the summer of 2005 helped to distinguish him as an empathetic on-the-scene correspondent in the eyes of the public. But even then Williams was known inside NBC News to exaggerate his experiences, say sources, which has raised questions about why NBC News management didn't take steps to rein in Williams.
Williams has led the top-rated evening newscast for most of the past 10 years, though David Muir has overtaken Williams on multiple occasions since taking over ABC's World News Tonight last fall.
The full NBC News memo, issued late Tuesday, is below:
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."