Brian Williams Scandal Prompts Frantic Efforts at NBC to Curb Rising Damage


Hours before Brian Williams took the anchor’s chair for the nightly newscast on Feb. 4, a sense of dread began to spread through the Rockefeller Plaza offices of NBC News. The military newspaper Stars and Stripes had just published an article in which Mr. Williams acknowledged that he had exaggerated an account of a helicopter journey in Iraq. Worse, Mr. Williams had written a weak apology, reading it first to the newspaper, then posting it on Facebook. None of his superiors knew about it. Alarmed, the news operation immediately began scrambling to contain the damage, according to people with knowledge of the events of the last week. A team was quickly assembled to draft a statement that Mr. Williams could read during his “NBC Nightly News” show that evening to address the issue. But the Facebook post boxed them in. The explanations had to match. Mr. Williams went on the air hours later and delivered the statement, including an apology. That was the start of a week of rapidly cascading events that besieged both Mr. Williams and the network. Interviews with people with knowledge of the process, as well as former employees who spoke to people at NBC, portray a news division operating in crisis mode as it investigated its own celebrity anchor and assessed whether he could salvage his position. Control of the situation quickly passed to Stephen B. Burke, chief executive of NBCUniversal. Thursday afternoon, Mr. Burke called the first of a series of secret meetings, this one at the conference room in the executive suites on the 51st floor. Those present included Patricia Fili-Krushel, chairwoman of NBCUniversal News Group, and Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News. Mr. Williams did not attend.

Mr. Burke acted decisively, according to one person, telling his colleagues to gather the facts so that they could make an expeditious but fair decision. He decided to hold meetings at 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. each day until the issue was resolved.

Mr. Burke sought advice from Mr. Williams’s predecessor, Tom Brokaw, who canceled a vacation in the Virgin Islands to offer his feedback. The two shared uncertainties about the best approach, with Mr. Brokaw expressing concerns about how the episode would affect NBC News employees, according to one person with knowledge of the discussions. Mr. Burke also consulted David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at NBCUniversal’s parent company, Comcast, who was busy on an issue with much higher financial stakes — Comcast’s attempt to gain regulatory approval for a $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable.

During the next week, NBC News buckled down as both Mr. Williams and the network came under scrutiny, people with knowledge of the events said. An internal investigation and high-level meetings continued through the weekend, including one Saturday morning at Mr. Williams’s Manhattan apartment, at which it was decided that Mr. Williams would have to temporarily step aside. It culminated Tuesday morning, when Mr. Burke told Mr. Williams that he was being suspended without pay for six months.

“This has been a painful period for all concerned,” Mr. Burke said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mr. Williams, and those close to him, did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment on Wednesday. NBC did not make top executives available for comment. The people who described the events at the network over the last seven days spoke strictly on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Williams’s sudden fall captivated the media world, motivated soldiers and veterans concerned that the experiences of war be reflected accurately and set off a debate about the level of trustworthiness required from someone who explained the world to nearly 10 million people a night. But for NBC, it was about protecting the integrity of its news operation, once called the crown jewel of the company.

On Thursday, Ms. Turness and Mr. Williams addressed the staff of “NBC Nightly News” at an afternoon meeting, and he again apologized for getting the story wrong on the air and bringing an onslaught of scrutiny to NBC News. Tensions continued to build as news accounts and social media posts began to question the way that Mr. Williams portrayed his reporting, not only for the Iraq episode but also for Hurricane Katrina and even in his tales of rescuing puppies as a teenage volunteer firefighter.

Mr. Williams appeared on the air that evening as speculation about his fate continued to swirl. He did not address the controversy, covering the measles outbreak, the online intrusion at Anthem insurance and the New York commuter train crash.

By Friday morning, the media frenzy was escalating. Ms. Turness and Mr. Williams addressed staff members at a broader editorial meeting held in a conference room on the third floor. Mr. Williams, who does not normally attend the meeting, apologized yet again. The mood was somber, as staff members tried to make sense of the controversy. That evening, Mr. Williams delivered what would be his last nightly newscast in six months, with executives unsure about whether he should remain in the anchor chair.

By Saturday morning, NBC executives saw that the story was not going away, the people with knowledge of the proceedings said. At the meeting at Mr. Williams’s apartment that morning, Ms. Turness, Ms. Fili-Krushel and other executives decided, among other issues, that Mr. Williams needed to get off the air. He had become too much a part of the news. Lester Holt, the anchor for “Dateline,” could step in.

Mr. Williams felt strongly that he needed to deliver the message. Executives agreed that he deserved that courtesy. He wrote the note, which executives reviewed, before it was sent to NBC News staff members Saturday afternoon. Mr. Holt informed viewers on the newscast that night.

The next day, Mr. Burke called another 10 a.m. meeting at his own apartment. Richard Esposito, the NBC investigative reporter whom Ms. Turness had assigned to lead an internal inquiry into Mr. Williams, told executives what he had started to uncover.

Mr. Esposito left, and the executives continued to discuss their options for the next several hours; a suspension was one possibility.

On Monday, top NBC officials discussed the issue again and concluded that Mr. Williams should be suspended for six months without pay. They decided to sleep on the decision that night. Mr. Burke contacted Mr. Williams to tell him to come to his apartment the next morning.

By that time, Mr. Esposito’s investigation indicated that Mr. Williams had gotten the Iraq helicopter story wrong on a recent newscast, a conclusion top officials found unacceptable. They also found problems with his portrayal of his Katrina reporting outside the broadcast. Mr. Burke informed Mr. Williams of his suspension. Ms. Turness told the staff of “Nightly News” after the broadcast that evening, with Mr. Williams calling in to tell them to take good care of the program.

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Burke, Ms. Turness and Ms. Fili-Krushel addressed the NBC News staff in the third-floor conference room. Mr. Burke walked through how the decision was made, and Ms. Fili-Krushel said that NBC News was bigger than this one moment.

Indeed, NBC is hoping that it is bigger than one person. On Wednesday, the network changed the name of the broadcast from “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” to “NBC Nightly News.”

Correction: February 13, 2015
An article on Thursday about NBC’s efforts to contain the damage from admissions by its news anchor, Brian Williams, that he had exaggerated an account of a helicopter journey in Iraq misstated, in some copies, the middle initial of NBCUniversal’s chief executive. He is Stephen B. Burke, not Stephen P.

WordPress Themes