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Brian Williams suspended for 6 months without pay

Larry French/Getty Images
  1. NBC News is suspending anchor Brian Williams for 6 months with no pay (full statement below).
  2. Williams has repeatedly misstated the events surrounding a helicopter trip he took in Iraq.
  3. Williams apologized for his misstatements, but the controversy brought to light other episodes of Williams statements that appear to have been untrue.
  4. Lester Holt will fill in for Williams on at least a temporary basis.
  5. Williams signed a 5-year, $10 million contract extension in December so NBC had no long-term Williams replacement plan in place.

What happened to Brian Williams in Iraq

In 2003, Williams was in Iraq to cover the US invasion. He and his camera crew were riding in a Chinook helicopter across the desert. Another group of three Chinooks were flying in formation about an hour ahead of them, and one of those helicopters was hit by an RPG and forced down. The other two Chinooks in the formation also made emergency landings. When Williams' helicopter caught up with the others, it landed as well.

It is not clear whether Williams' Chinook landed because the others had already made emergency landings, or because a sandstorm was rolling in. However, the sandstorm did arrive, which meant that all four helicopters, their pilots and crews, and the NBC News staffers were all stuck in the desert for several days.

But the main thing to know here is that everyone — including Brian Williams — agrees that his helicopter did not get hit by enemy fire. That did not happen.

Williams told a false story several times

But Williams has said that his helicopter was hit by enemy fire — on several occasions.

During his tribute speech on January 30, Williams said, "The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG."

He went on to claim, "Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the US Army 3rd Infantry."

During a March 2013 appearance on David Letterman, Williams said that "two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47."

A few weeks earlier, Williams had told a similar tale during an appearance on Alec Baldwin's WNYC podcast "Here's the Thing." Williams said that his "unbridled confidence" occasionally got him into trouble. "I've done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq, with rounds coming into the airframe." Baldwin asked Williams if he had thought he was going to die, and he replied "Briefly. Sure."

Williams' fall is costly for NBC

Until "Choppergate," Brian Williams' nightly newscast was a bright spot in an otherwise sagging NBC News operation. NBC's morning show "Today," the longtime leader in its time slot, had slipped in recent years. The once dominant NBC News Sunday show "Meet The Press" fell so severely in the ratings that its anchor David Gregory got fired. MSNBC's ratings have also slipped,  and in 2014 CNBC had its worst ratings year since the mid-1990s.

By contrast, Williams hosted what was normally the top-rated prime time newscast.

NBC News' full statement on Williams' suspension

All,

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."

Deborah