NEW YORK — After NBC’s decision to remove Brian Williams as Nightly News anchor and reassign him to MSNBC, the embattled news reader faces a quest to rebuild his credibility and dignity in a role that is a marked comedown from his old one.
Step No. 1 is June 19, when he faces old colleague Matt Lauer for an interview that will be aired on the Today show and Nightly News.
It will be Williams’ first time speaking publicly since being suspended in February for telling tales about his reporting experiences.
Williams said “I’m sorry” June 18 in a statement issued by NBC. But there’s a big difference between a quote emailed to reporters and an interview expected to be seen by millions of viewers.
“He needs to acknowledge there’s been a great breach of trust, bordering on unforgivable,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington anchor and now a George Washington University professor.
“He needs to discuss that openly. He needs to renounce any activities that go beyond doing the news if he wants to be viewed as a journalist.”
As anchor and Managing Editor of the top-rated Nightly News, Williams was arguably the most prominent television journalist in the country.
NBC concluded, in a decision announced June 18, that he was too damaged to fill that role anymore but said he deserved a second chance. He’ll get that at MSNBC beginning in August, returning him to the cable network where he once hosted an evening newscast.
He will also do occasional breaking news reports on NBC when his successor at Nightly News, Lester Holt, is unavailable, NBC said.
His rehabilitation won’t be easy, not when he’s repeatedly referred to as “Lyin’ Brian” in tabloid headlines.
Williams’ suspension was for falsely claiming he’d been in a helicopter hit by enemy fire during the Iraq War. That led NBC to conduct an investigation, which the network said turned up other inaccurate statements about his reporting, most of them in talk show anecdotes told after the fact.
There were reports that questioned Williams’ claims during coverage of Hurricane Katrina, anti-government riots in Egypt, conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians and the aftermath of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
Williams needs to go into his new job “with a serious cloak of humility,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the journalism think tank the Poynter Institute.
“This is like a major league hitter going down to the minor leagues,” McBride said. “Good for him. He probably doesn’t need the money.”
NBC’s actions compel scrutiny, too. For instance, what does it say about MSNBC that NBC executives believed Williams was too damaged for Nightly News but not enough to be accepted by cable viewers?
NBC has also not indicated it planned to release the internal memo about Williams’ behavior. Viewers won’t know which of the accusations had merit and which did not. NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke said that “this matter has been extensively analyzed and deliberated on by NBC. We are moving forward.”
“Why wouldn’t you release the report and have that set the tone for the rebuilding?” asked Jay Rosen, a New York University professor and author of the Press Think news blog.
Some of Williams’ critics believe that he needs to sit for an interview with a non-NBC journalist to remove any suspicion that the network plans to go easy on him, or is more interested in the ratings boost an interview could bring than in what is actually said.
Before his downfall, Williams was a regular on the talk show circuit, known for his sharp wit. But given that NBC said most of his misstatements came in later recountings of his reporting experience as opposed to reporting when the story was current, he’s not likely to be swapping stories with the likes of Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert anytime soon.
“His motivation that came through in the last several months was about recognition and fame and laughs,” Sesno said. Now it’s time for Williams to reintroduce himself to viewers and prove his interests lie in being a journalist, he said.
He has a long road ahead
By David Bauder, AP Television Writer. AP TV Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed