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Brian Williams will stay with NBC's news division, but he’s not getting his old job back

Brian Williams will return to NBC News, but not as anchor of the network's flagship newscast.
Brian Williams will return to NBC News, but not as anchor of the network's flagship newscast.
Monica Schipper/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.
  1. Embattled news anchor Brian Williams will return to the NBC family of networks after his suspension ends in August, the company announced today.
  2. Williams will no longer anchor the NBC Nightly News. Interim anchor Lester Holt will take over the role full-time. He will be the first full-time, solo black anchor of a network evening newscast.
  3. CNN reports that Williams will become the "face of MSNBC," NBC Universal's struggling cable news network. He will hold down the fort during breaking news events and fill other roles at the network.

Williams was suspended after telling false stories about his experiences in the Iraq War

For several years, Williams frequently told a story, often to talk show hosts, about a time when a helicopter he was flying in was hit by RPG fire in Iraq in 2003. The helicopter, he said, was forced to land. He repeated this account to, among others, David Letterman, Alec Baldwin (on Baldwin's WNYC radio show), and the audience at a January 30, 2015, New York Rangers hockey game.

It was that last occurrence (part of a tribute to a retired soldier) that proved his undoing. The military newspaper Stars and Stripes looked into Williams's story and found that it was almost completely false. Williams had been in a helicopter that landed during the war, and he had spent several days in the desert. But the helicopter had not been hit by enemy fire. Instead, one of the other helicopters it was traveling with had been hit, and it was the other helicopter that was forced to land.

Williams claimed he had simply conflated events in his mind and become mistaken about what had actually happened on that day, but the damage to his reputation was swift and brutal. By February 10, 2015, Williams had been suspended for six months without pay, with Holt replacing him in the Nightly News anchor's chair.

NBC's inquiry into Williams turned up other evidence of fabrication

It appears that Williams's helicopter story isn't the only time he's lied or stretched the truth. In particular, discrepancies were found in his recollections of the time he spent in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The New York Times reports that NBC identified several additional instances of falsehoods and fabrication, though these have not yet been made public.

Wrote Emily Steel, John Koblin, and Ravi Somaiya for the Times:

Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months, it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

Williams was once the biggest name in network news

The likely reason it took NBC so long to decide what to do about Williams is that he was so very successful. Under his watch, the Nightly News was consistently the top-rated newscast in broadcast television, pulling in just under 10 million viewers a night. He had also signed a $50 million contract with NBC shortly prior to the controversy.

Reports the Hollywood Reporter:

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 an full-throated apology, something both Lack and Burke insisted upon, say sources. 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.

Williams's extreme popularity in network news led to several appearances by the anchor on talk shows and comedy programs. He was a recurring guest on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and popped up several times on 30 Rock, Tina Fey's sitcom set within a fictional version of NBC.

In one regard, NBC hasn't had much to worry about in Williams's absence. Holt's ratings, though lower than Williams's, haven't tumbled precipitously from the numbers Williams was earning before he was suspended, and NBC remains narrowly ahead of second-place ABC in the evening news ratings race.

In taking over the NBC Nightly News, Holt is also making history. He will be the first solo, full-time black anchor of a network newscast.

NBC's decision marks a reversal of course and a mild demotion for Williams

Going from NBC to MSNBC reverses the move Williams made when he replaced Tom Brokaw on the parent network in 2004. Williams had previously been central to NBC's cable news arm, where he anchored the program The News With Brian Williams and was groomed to take over for Brokaw. Here he is presenting a 2002 story about an unusual Atlanta snowstorm:

While a position at MSNBC might not be what some of Williams's most ardent detractors wanted for the anchor, it is something of a demotion. Anchoring a major broadcast network's evening news program is the most prestigious job in TV journalism. After all, there are only three network news anchors at any given time.

However, the power of the evening news as a cultural force has waned in recent years — especially among younger viewers, who are more likely to get their news from other sources. Network newscasts simply don't carry the cachet they once did, and even if Williams's ratings were the best in TV, they were a far cry from viewership even 10 years ago.

Plus, it's not clear Williams can bounce back from this incident. Writes The Hollywood Reporter:

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.