The fallout from Brian Williams embellishing his helicopter journey in Iraq has become such a public relations disaster, that he may not be able to salvage his damaged reputation and return to the NBC News anchor chair, media analysts say.
The network announced Tuesday that it had suspended the anchor and managing editor for six months without pay, effective immediately. While NBC left the door open for Williams to return, some members of the journalism community think it’s unlikely.
“My guess is he’s not going to go back to NBC News,” Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor and former managing editor of NPR News, John Dinges, told TheWrap. “I don’t think he can recover from this.”
In a memo to staff, NBC News President Deborah Turness said Tuesday, “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.”
While Turness made it clear NBC was taking the matter with the seriousness it deserves, she stopped shy of giving Williams the ax.
“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,” said Turness. “Millions of Americans have turned to him every day, and he has been an important and well-respected part of our organization.”
The memo noted, “Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”
Experts say it will be difficult for Williams to regain that trust.
“I honestly don’t know whether Williams can survive this scandal,” said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar with the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school dedicated to teaching journalists and media leaders. “Anything is possible. I think that if that is his goal, he has a lot of work to do. From the testimony of the people who know him… I think that he certainly has the talent, and capacity and the energy to return. Whether he wants that, and whether that will be in NBC’s best interest, remains to be seen.”
The controversy was sparked by Williams’ account of being struck by rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire while in a helicopter during the initial 2003 Iraq invasion. He came under scrutiny last week after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that were hit by RPG fire told Stars and Stripes military newspaper that Williams was nowhere near the helicopter that was shot down.
The anchor acknowledged he had made a “mistake” in an interview with the newspaper on Feb. 4: “I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
Williams later apologized to his “Nightly News” viewers saying he had been on a different helicopter, behind the one that had sustained fire, and that he had inadvertently “conflated” the two.
“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago… I want to apologize,” said Williams. “I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire; I was instead in a following aircraft.”
But, the explanation did little to squash the tsunami-like wave of criticism that followed.
“When I heard his so-called apology I was not impressed at all,” said Dinges. “I thought it was a ‘cover-your-ass’ apology, not an apology-apology… It was transparently vacuous. As a journalist, it showed complete disregard to what he was admitting to.”
The veteran NBC News anchor has told the story of getting shot down by RPG fire several times over the years, including on
Williams also gave a questionable account of his time covering Israel’s war with Hezbollah – once claiming there was rocket fire ‘just underneath’ the helicopter he was riding in – a detail that was absent from his reporting at the time. Another Williams account of seeing a dead body float down a street in New Orleans’ French Quarter during Hurricane Katrina has also been called into question.
While Clark believes Williams’ time as “Nightly News” anchor is likely up, he thinks the news veteran will eventually recover.
“On the scale of journalistic malpractice, this is not on the high side compared to many other cases,” he said.
Williams renewed his contract with NBC News for five more years in December of 2014.
In his absence, the network has tapped weekend anchor Lester Holt to substitue during Williams’ six month suspension.
It will be up to NBC brass whether Holt’s guest spot turns into a permanent gig.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified John Dinges’ name. TheWrap regrets the error.