NBC stops short of firing Brian Williams

In a memo, Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, explained the thought process behind the decision to suspend the anchor for six months without pay.

Tuesday was a big night for news about news.

One long-serving anchor/host, Jon Stewart, announced he would be voluntarily stepping down from “The Daily Show” later this year. Another anchor, Brian Williams, was forcibly removed from his chair, though perhaps not permanently.

NBC News answered swirling controversy over factual discrepancies in a story about the anchor’s experience in a helicopter while covering the Iraq war by suspending Williams for six months without pay.

In a memo to employees, NBC News President Deborah Turness wrote:

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.

Turness added, “NBC News is bigger than the moment” and that the staff will “get through this together.”

Turness’ explanation for the suspension rather than an out-and-out firing—viewers’ “special relationship” with Williams—is likely a valid one, but Al Tompkins at Poynter argues that there are probably other reasons, too. He writes:

A suspension gives the network time to assess the damage Williams has done to his credibility. It also gives the network time to see if possible successors, like Lester Holt, can attract enough viewers to keep NBC from slipping out of first place in the evening news race. If not, NBC can rotate in other temporary replacements until they find a good fit.

PR Daily readers, how would you rate Turness’ explanation for the suspension?

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