NBC News Suspends Brian Williams for False Iraq Helicopter Story

“Nightly News” host suspended for six months: “Brian has a responsibility to be truthful,” says NBC News president

NBC News has suspended “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams for six months, according to an internal memo sent by NBC News president Deborah Turness on Tuesday.

In the interim, Lester Holt will continue to serve as substitute anchor. Williams is suspended without pay.

The memo noted, “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.”

Williams’ account of being struck by enemy rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire while in a helicopter during the initial 2003 Iraq invasion 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 newspaper Williams was nowhere near the helicopter shot down.

The memo (reproduced in full below) included a note from NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke, who said that, while the Williams situation has been a “painful period for all concerned” and that Williams “has jeopardized the trust of millions,” Williams also “deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him.”

The anchor acknowledged the same 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.” On Wednesday night, Williams apologized on-air.

“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago … 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.”

After anchoring the next two days after his apology, Williams announced he’d be stepping away from the broadcast while NBC News dealt with the situation. Weekend “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt has filled in for Williams.

The veteran NBC News anchor has told the story of getting shot down by RPG fire several times over the years, including on David Letterman in 2013: “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK47,” he told Letterman. “We figure out how to land safely … we landed very quickly and hard.”

After he admitted to his “mistake,” TV news covered one of its own at length on CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

Digital media also exploded with response to the controversy, including pieces that equated Williams with war “chickenhawks” to another that went inside the science behind Williams’ “horrifying memory flub.” And social media swirled with #BrianWilliamsMisremembers becoming a top trender on Twitter with users playing out historical events Williams might have misremembered.

Few media figures have defended Williams: The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik — not known for going for the jugular — called for Williams’ firing. Countless others, including Fox News’ Howard Kurtz, have suggested Williams’ repeatedly telling the false story over years leaves him in a very tough situation.

“This just does not pass the smell test,” Brian Stelter told Alisyn Camerota on Thursday. “How can anyone conflate being on a helicopter that did not take fire and being on a helicopter that did take fire.”

Stelter suggested the big question Williams didn’t address during his on-air apology was how far away he was from the helicopter that was shot down.

Read the full memo 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.”