Brian Williams Wanted to Host 'Tonight Show' and 7 Other Revelations From New York Magazine's NBC News Exposé
NBC News president Deborah Turness gave Williams a writing table once owned by Edward R. Murrow to convince him to stay at the division and once accused Chuck Todd's agent of creating bad press about David Gregory.
Brian Williams' reputation has taken a blow since his admission that he "exaggerated" a story about being in a helicopter that was shot down during the Iraq War (he's currently on a six-month suspension as NBC News execs debate his future). But, according to a new exposé published in New York magazine, the problems at NBC News go much deeper than Williams' admitted embellishment.
"[W]hile the Williams fiasco might seem to be the cause of NBC News' struggles, viewed through a wider lens it looks more like the symptom of a much bigger problem," writes Gabriel Sherman in the 5,728-word piece, which was published online Sunday and will appear in Monday's magazine.
Here are eight big revelations from the story:
1. Williams wants to host his own late-night show
The NBC Nightly News anchor often appeared on late-night shows, hosted Saturday Night Live and even played himself on 30 Rock. But he wasn't content to continue making guest appearances, according to Sherman. In recent months, "Williams began to tell friends he was thinking of making his side gig his main act. He relished the freedom of improv and expressed frustration at the conventions of network news." In fact, he'd once told NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke that he wanted to take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno (Burke instead gave him the weekly primetime show Rock Center, which Williams hoped would evolve into a variety show) and pitched the idea of succeeding David Letterman to CBS chief Leslie Moonves.
2. During contract negotiations, NBC News president Deborah Turness gave him a special gift to stay in the anchor's chair
Late last year, Matt Lauer had told Turness that Edward R. Murrow's mahogany writing table was for sale by an L.A. antiques dealer. During a dinner in December, Turness presented Williams with the desk, hoping "it would remind Williams that he was America’s most trusted anchor — the Murrow of his day. He shouldn’t give that up to be Jimmy Fallon," writes Sherman. The move paid off; Williams spontaneously announced his decision to stay at NBC for another five years. The desk, Sherman writes, is currently in storage during Williams' suspension. On Monday, Sherman tweeted a link to the desk's listing on the website for antiques store L.A. Vintage Furnishings. There, a description refers to it as a "Federal style Carlton Desk" that was made in the 1940s by Morganton Furniture Company from North Carolina. The retailer acquired the desk from the Murrow estate through a family member.
3. Williams' wife lobbied NBC News brass for him to keep his job
Even as the scandal was heating up, Williams was sticking by his story. Writes Sherman: " 'I did see a dead body. Talk to the editor of the [New Orleans] Times-Picayune,' he told Patricia Fili-Krushel — then chairman of NBC News (she was recently replaced by Andrew Lack and will move into a corporate role on Burke's executive team) — in a meeting." As execs debated Williams' future on Nightly News, several met with him, wife Jane and attorney Robert Bartnett at his apartment on the Upper East Side. Jane believed they were rushing to judgment. Writes Sherman: "Jane, who had refused to read any of the negative press about her husband, said: 'If you take him off the air you’ll be sending the message that he did something wrong.' Williams seemed paralyzed. 'Honey, you haven’t seen the stuff.'"
4. Williams has been "strategizing" with Lack and former Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer as he awaits NBC's decision about his future
Meanwhile, he's also anxious to give the press his own account of the events that led to his suspension. A close friend of his told Sherman: "He can't wait until he can speak. He's just anxious to get back to work. And he can’t wait to respond."
5. Earlier in her tenure, Turness suggested more celebrity guests and a reggae performance in an attempt to save David Gregory's job
One of her fist assignments after landing the NBC News in August 2013 was to boost the ratings for Meet the Press and boost the profile of its host, Gregory. She wanted him to exhibit more of his personality following a focus-group study that found viewers felt they really didn't know him. Producers wanted him to talk more about himself on the air — "to talk, for example, about being an observant Jew," writes Sherman — to no avail. So Turness began thinking of other ideas, like booking stars active in the politics, such as Angelina Jolie; taping in front of a live studio audience; and incorporating music into the program. One example: bringing in a reggae band to play The Specials song "Free Nelson Mandela" at the end of a segment about the former South African leader. Gregory's response? He "found her suggestions outlandish," Sherman writes.
6. Fili-Krushel accused Chuck Todd's agent of orchestrating bad press about Gregory
Sherman notes that both Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough and Washington correspondent Chuck Todd both were clamoring for Gregory's job. One of Sherman's sources said that Fili-Krushel was so convinced that Todd's camp was behind a run of bad press that she called Todd's agent, Jay Sures at UTA, and "told him to cut it out; Sures denied he was behind the bad press." Todd ultimately got the job.
7. Lauer believes that content, not talent, was to blame for Today's ratings drop
Last fall, in meeting with producers, "he called GMA's mix of celebrity scandal, grisly crime stories and viral videos 'tabloid garbage.' Today, he insisted, needed a mix of hard news and uplifting stories, segments Lauer called 'relatable,'" Sherman writes. He also was still smarting over the backlash caused by Ann Curry's ouster and demanded that producers not make any further changes in the on-air talent.
8. Jamie Horowitz tried to "stoke[e] unrest" among the Today team
During his brief time as Today's senior vp and general manager, Horowitz "set the staff on edge," Sherman writes. "According to one senior Today staffer, he would play a game of Survivor with producers. 'If you’re on an island and you could keep three senior producers, whom would you keep?' " He also reportedly told Tamron Hall and Natalie Morales that each was "trashing" the other behind their backs.
March 9, 7:10 a.m. This story has been updated with more information about the Edward R. Murrow desk Brian Williams acquired.