It's Official: Brian Williams Will Remain at NBC News
Lester Holt becomes the permanent anchor of 'Nightly News,' while executives have carved out a reporting role for Williams at MSNBC.
Brian Williams will remain at the news division of NBCUniversal, but he will not resume his anchor duties of NBC's Nightly News when his six-month, unpaid suspension ends in August. The announcement, making an expected deal official, came Thursday afternoon from NBC News chairman Andy Lack and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.
In a statement accompanying the announcement, Williams said, “I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust."
Williams will join MSNBC as an anchor on breaking news and special reports. Lester Holt, who has been anchoring the broadcast since February when the scandal first erupted, has been named the permanent anchor of Nightly News. Williams will work with senior vp specials Mark Lukasiewicz. Williams also will serve as a breaking news anchor for NBC News live special reports when Holt is not available. He begins his new duties in mid-August.
The resolution concludes nearly four months of negotiations between NBCUni executives and Williams' representative, Washington attorney Robert Barnett. (Interestingly, Barnett also represented Ann Curry in her thorny 2012 transition from Today show co-host to correspondent at NBC News. Curry left the news division earlier this year at the conclusion of her contract.)
Williams has been on MSNBC before; he anchored a flagship 8 p.m. newscast at the network's inception in 1996, when it was a training ground for NBC News journalists. Lack presided over the launch of MSNBC during his first stint with the company. And it was Lack who oversaw the eventual passing of the Nightly baton from Tom Brokaw to Williams.
But Williams' new role at the company marks a precipitous fall for one of the biggest stars in the news business, and one who had seemingly carved out a unique niche as a favorite of late-night comedians, including David Letterman and Jon Stewart. He also made cameo appearances on Tina Fey's 30 Rock and was the only TV news anchor to ever host Saturday Night Live. Of course, those appearances turned out to be instrumental in Williams' downfall, as his habit of embellishing for late-night audiences were saved in perpetuity to be replayed and picked apart.
Williams signed a five-year, $50 million deal with NBC News in late 2014, barely two months before scandal erupted in early February after U.S. servicemen began to vocally question Williams' repeated accounts of a reporting trip in Iraq in 2003 during which Williams claimed he was in a Black Hawk that was downed by RPG fire. From there, NBC's internal investigation turned up several additional questionable stories from Williams during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and from Egypt's Tahrir Square in 2011. The investigation also raised questions about Williams' claim that he was sent a piece of the downed helicopter used during the Osama bin Laden kill mission.
In a press release announcing Holts' and Williams' new roles, NBC noted that its investigation, overseen by executive vp and general counsel Kim Harris and conducted by NBC News investigative unit head Richard Esposito, "found that Williams made a number of inaccurate statements about his own role and experiences covering events in the field. The statements in question did not for the most part occur on NBC News platforms or in the immediate aftermath of the news events, but rather on late-night programs and during public appearances, usually years after the news events in question."
Sources say that throughout the negotiations, Williams expressed a strong desire to regain his old job at Nightly News, where he was also managing editor. And Lack, who has maintained a friendship with Williams and other NBC News stars, had repeated and tough face-to-face meetings with Williams, during which he let the anchor know that that scenario was unlikely. A sticking point during the talks was Williams' reluctance to express a full-throated apology, something both Lack and Burke insisted upon, say sources. Williams taped a sit-down interview with Today's Matt Lauer over two days earlier this week, according to an NBC statement. The interview will mark Williams' first public statements about the scandal. It is scheduled to air Friday on Today and Nightly News.
Lack is said to have pressed Lauer, known for his interviewing skills, into service and also convinced Williams to submit to the interrogation. An aggravating factor in Williams' path to return has been his pointed lack of support among the rank-and-file at NBC News. Meanwhile, Lack had continually reassured staffers that his first responsibility was to the news division as a whole.
Staffers at NBC News expressed incredulity that Williams can ever repair his career. And many point out that his new job at MSNBC seems to involve the skills he never did master, including reporting and live anchoring.
"People are furious that he is coming back in any capacity," said one NBC News source. "It's a major disappointment."
Meanwhile, the historical connotations of Holt's ascendancy to the anchor chair — making him among the faces of the NBC News brand — has not been lost on NBC executives. Holt — a well-liked, hardworking and talented live news anchor — is on a very short list of African-Americans who have solo anchored an evening newscast.
“Lester has done outstanding work for NBC News over the last 10 years, and he’s performed remarkably well over the last few months under very tough circumstances,” Lack said in a statement. “He’s an exceptional anchor who goes straight to the heart of every story and is always able to find its most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience. In many ways, television news stands at a crossroads, and Lester is the perfect person to meet the moment.”
Added Holt: "This is an enormous honor. The respect and admiration I have for the Nightly News team has only grown deeper over the last several months that we've been together. Day in and day out under an uncomfortable spotlight they have produced world-class journalism. I’m very proud and grateful to be part of such an unflappable and dedicated team of professionals as we move forward together."
On Thursday morning, Williams' verified Twitter account still listed him as anchor and managing editor @NBCNightlyNews.
Williams, Lack and Burke's full statements:
Lack said, “Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust. His excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”
Mr. Burke said, “First of all, I want to thank Lester Holt. Lester stepped into the anchor chair in a trying time and has really come through for us. We are lucky to have him and I know he will continue to do great things at NBC News for years to come.”
Burke continued, “As you would imagine this was a difficult decision. Brian Williams has been with NBC News for a very long time and he has covered countless news events with honor and skill. As I said in February, we believe in second chances, and I am hopeful that this new beginning will be good for Brian and the organization. This matter has been extensively analyzed and deliberated on by NBC. We are moving forward.”
On his return to NBC, Williams said: “I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust. I will greatly miss working with the team on Nightly News, but I know the broadcast will be in excellent hands with Lester Holt as anchor. I will support him 100% as he has always supported me. I am grateful for the chance to return to covering the news. My new role will allow me to focus on important issues and events in our country and around the world, and I look forward to it.”