NEW YORK, N.Y. – As the four-month anniversary of Brian Williams’ suspension for misrepresenting his experiences as a journalist nears, NBC News has remained mum on whether he will return as the network’s top anchor, be cut loose or take on some other role for the news division.
Lester Holt continues as Williams’ substitute on “Nightly News,” keeping NBC slightly ahead in a ratings competition with ABC’s “World News Tonight” that Williams had dominated.
NBC suspended Williams for six months on Feb. 10 after he admitted to falsely claiming that he had been in a helicopter hit by enemy fire during the Iraq War, when in fact his helicopter had not been hit. The network subsequently ordered an internal investigation into other instances where Williams allegedly embellished his experiences, most often in talk show appearances.
In April, former NBC News President Andy Lack was brought back to oversee the news division, with executive Pat Fili-Krushel dismissed, adding a new voice into deliberations over a decision that will likely be made by top executives at NBC’s corporate parent Comcast Corp.
The more time that passes without a decision, the more NBC News’ reputation is damaged, said veteran news executive Shelley Ross.
“It feels like it’s just drawn out and it’s a company not moving forward,” said Ross, former top producer at ABC’s “Primetime Live” and “Good Morning America.” ”Are they just going to wait until the Fourth of July weekend and hope nobody notices it?”
NBC’s defenders note that it’s more important to get the decision right than done quickly.
The latest in a series of anonymously sourced stories about outcomes, from CNN on Sunday, stressed the possibility that executives are considering other things for Williams to do at NBC besides anchoring “Nightly News.” It’s not clear what that would be; Williams’ previous attempt to anchor a newsmagazine was bounced around NBC’s schedule without finding an audience. Ross suggested Williams could be given an hour on the low-rated MSNBC.
NBC said Monday following the CNN report that no decision had been made on Williams’ future, as did Williams’ representative, Robert Barnett. Any settlement reached with Williams would be completed through Barnett; the anchor signed a new five-year deal with NBC News just last fall.
“Nightly News” won 10 of the 15 weeks since Williams left the air, with the David Muir-anchored ABC newscast winning the others. Williams never lost in the ratings. In Williams’ absence, “Nightly News” has averaged 8.44 million viewers, ABC has had 8.32 million and the “CBS Evening News” 7.08 million, according to the Nielsen company. Holt’s average lead of 120,000 viewers over ABC compares to the 587,000-viewer edge that NBC enjoyed under Williams between last September and when he left the air.
The suspension has left NBC and Holt in limbo. The broadcast is no longer formally called “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” and is simply called “NBC Nightly News.” NBC has not run advertising to support Holt, not knowing how long he will remain in the job.
Holt has done some travelling for news events, including to Baltimore to cover racial unrest and Texas after flooding there last week. Following a deadly train crash outside of Philadelphia, NBC took the odd step of having Holt anchor the show from a helicopter hovering over the damaged tracks.
NBC has also not said whether it will make public the details of its investigation into Williams’ conduct once a decision is made about the anchor’s future.
A journalism ethics expert said that not releasing the report would be unwise on several levels. If not, it will almost certainly be leaked, and NBC would lose control over how that information is presented, said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute think-tank .
“The whole reason that they commissioned the report is that they want to restore public trust,” McBride said. “If you really want to restore trust, come clean on what you did.”