The unraveling of Nightly News anchor Brian Williams's accounts of his reporting in Iraq and Katrina-ravaged New Orleans has become a black mark on NBC News's reputation. A detailed account in Thursday's Washington Post of the decision to suspend Williams for six months without pay appears to demonstrate how seriously the Peacock Network has taken the newsman's transgression—NBC Universal's CEO Steve Burke even considered firing Williams outright.
Here's how the Post describes it, citing anonymous NBC officials:
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.
Indeed Tom Brokaw, Williams's predecessor in the anchor chair and the elder statesman at NBC News, had been "raising concerns" about his colleague for "at least a year." NPR's David Folkenflik reported:
Well, Brokaw's told colleagues, going back at least a year, that he heard Williams giving increasingly grandiose versions of the downed Iraqi helicopter story that got him into trouble in recent days, and that Brokaw himself looked into the anecdote and that the facts simply didn't match. Similarly, in an interview Brokaw did of Williams at Columbia University last June, Williams said he witnessed a suicide following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Katrina was really this definitional story for Williams. It was just a year after he took over. Questions have been raised about the veracity of his reporting there.
Ultimately, as Tom Brokaw told one associate, he felt Williams was more of a performer than an anchor, and these tensions become relevant at a time of crisis like this. Until last night, in fact, there were few public sides of leadership by top network brass, and that makes Brokaw all the more relevant.
To sum up: Folks at NBC had been "warned for some time" of Williams's fabulism, "sending up red flags" at least as early as the beginning of last year. That's around the same time Brokaw himself began speaking out around NBC about his concerns with Williams.
But if there were such strong doubts about Williams at the beginning of 2014, and if Brokaw is so widely respected in the building, why did NBC renew the Williams's contract for (reportedly) five years and $50 million just two months ago?
Here's what NBC News's Deborah Turness said back in December, in a memo announcing the renewal: “Brian is one of the most trusted journalists of our time. He has led this organization through every major news event for the last decade, from Hurricane Katrina in his first year in the anchor chair to his exclusive interview with Edward Snowden this year, through elections, wars, natural disasters, tragedies and triumphs."
NBC even produced a promotional video to commemorate Williams's 10-year anniversary in the chair and emphasize that he would remain there for years to come. "He's been there. He'll be there," was the promo's tag line. Watch it below:
Is it the case that NBC knew less than it claims to now know about the problems with Williams? Or did the network move forward on renewing his contract, praising Williams publicly for his trustworthiness and even publishing a hagiographic tribute, even as NBC's higher-ups were voicing their doubts?
If Mitt Romney had said in 2012 that a second Obama term would bring not just continued economic uncertainty, but also the re-emergence of international terrorist forces, Russia's invasion of the Ukraine, an illegal immigration crisis, a knife-wielding madman in the White House, a beheading in Oklahoma, and the Ebola virus in Texas, even the president's most paranoid critics would have told him to