NBC has suspended its star news anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay over his false story of coming under fire in a US military helicopter in Iraq.
The network made the announcement in a statement on Tuesday night. It said Williams had been informed of the decision earlier and the suspension was “effective immediately”.
Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, used sharp language to scold her erstwhile star, saying that in a 30 January broadcast he misrepresented his helicopter ride while covering the Iraq war in 2003 – falsely claiming to have come under rocket fire. The network’s investigation showed he had repeated the incorrect account in other venues, she said.
“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position … As managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.”
Steve Burke, NBC Universal’s chief executive, was even more scathing: “By his actions Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”
The punishment followed a week-long media storm that veered between scorn and outrage over the anchor’s embellishments, shredding Williams’s reputation and hobbling NBC in its nightly ratings battle with rival networks.
Speculation over his fate swirled on Tuesday after he was reportedly summoned to Burke’s Manhattan apartment.
Variety, the showbusiness magazine, had suggested the anchor, having apologised on air last week, was poised for a comeback. Instead he has been taken off the air, leaving questions over whether he will ever return.
Accusations swelled after the military newspaper Stars and Stripes interviewed US army veterans who had accused Williams on Facebook of making up combat experiences in Iraq.
Williams made an on-air apology last Wednesday acknowledging some inaccuracies.
But questions continued to grow about his other reporting – from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, on the Israeli war with Hezbollah in 2006, and an anecdote about being robbed at gunpoint while selling Christmas trees in the 1970s.
It has been an abrupt fall from grace. Williams was the most-watched news anchor in the US and had just signed a new contract with NBC, reportedly for more than $10m year.
In the past week he has fallen from 23rd to 835th on a list of the most trusted people in the country, according to Celebrity DBI, an independent index of influence.
— The Marketing Arm (@TheMarketingArm) February 10, 2015
In a Rasmussen poll 40% said Williams should resign, 35% disagreed and 25% were not sure.
NBC Nightly News has consistently been the top-rated primetime network news program in the 10 years that Williams has been anchor. The program averaged 10.18m viewers last week, according to figures from the industry website TV Newser. Viewership fell off precipitously, however, as the Williams scandal gained traction, with the audience on Friday down 27% from Monday.
Turness, the NBC News president, said Lester Holt, Williams’s primary substitute, would fill in for him during the six-month suspension.
She told staff it was a hard decision but appropriate and proportionate. “This has been a difficult time. But NBC News is bigger than this moment … We will get through this together.”
Burke said it had been a painful period and held out the prospect of redemption and comeback. “He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”
Reaction to the suspension was mixed. Some said Williams was lucky to avoid being fired.
Piers Morgan, the former CNN presenter, urged mercy: “We surely need to get a collective grip and gain some perspective on all this.”
Ian Millhiser, the justice editor of ThinkProgress, joked that Williams had become the “first person in human history to suffer professional consequences for lying about the Iraq War”.
Here is Deborah Turness’s full statement:
We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months. The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately. We let Brian know of our decision earlier today. Lester Holt will continue to substitute Anchor the NBC Nightly News.
Our review, which is being led by Richard Esposito working closely with NBCUniversal General Counsel Kim Harris, is ongoing, but I think it is important to take you through our thought process in coming to this decision.
While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.
In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.
As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.
Steve Burke, Pat Fili and I came to this decision together. We felt it would have been wrong to disregard the good work Brian has done and the special relationship he has forged with our viewers over 22 years. Millions of Americans have turned to him every day, and he has been an important and well-respected part of our organization.
As I’m sure you understand, this was a very hard decision. Certainly there will be those who disagree. But we believe this suspension is the appropriate and proportionate action.
This has been a difficult time. But NBC News is bigger than this moment. You work so hard and dedicate yourselves each and every day to the important work of bringing trusted, credible news to our audience. Because of you, your loyalty, your dedication, NBC News is an organization we can – and should – all be proud of. We will get through this together.
Steve Burke asked me to share the following message.
“This has been a painful period for all concerned and we appreciate your patience while we gathered the available facts. By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate. Brian’s life’s work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”