Brian Williams: Lots of questions, maybe finally some answers
Brian Williams, the once and possibly still future anchor of "Nightly News," is now three months into his six-month suspension. And that, dear reader, is the only fact we can verify at this moment. Quite possibly the only one Williams can, too.
Yes, there is confusion. Yes, there are questions. Yes, there are "conflicting reports." Yes ... but what does anyone really know?
In an effort to clear the air this morning, let's ask the questions, and make attempts at some answers. What you are about to read is based on some reporting, and my own hunches. Take my word on this -- the people I've spoken to do know what they're talking about; my "hunches" may be the most suspect part of this exercise (so caveat emptor).
Where is Brian right now anyway?
Sure, if you'd been suspended for six months and have a few million in the bank, you would head to Tahiti for some R&R, right? But you are not Williams. He is -- by all accounts -- close to home, and home, in this instance, is New York's East Side (his wife works for Bloomberg). There was even photographic proof of his New York domicile, as dutifully recorded in the Post recently -- Brian with a new puppy in Central Park. Ahhh.
Why is Brian hanging out?
Lots of good reasons, but most notably this -- the ongoing investigation by NBC News over his alleged various embellishments. The belief is, if he has to respond to something that seems egregious or demands a response, he has to be close by to answer the question. Nevertheless, Williams -- in fact -- has not seen the report, or its contents, and (according to some) won't know what's in it exactly until it is completed. That could be any day (or not), and it probably wouldn't look good if he was in Tahiti when the hammer comes down.
What is Brian's state of mind?
About the same as everyone else -- confused -- but from what I've heard, also optimistic. In fact, up until recently, he was in a great mood, almost certainly expecting a return to the anchor chair by this summer, his period of penance behind him. Williams has also (apparently) not been paying much attention to the press, which may be a reason for the optimism. Nevertheless, I hear he thinks a lot of the background noise is confined to the "industry" or to the press, and that the rest of the world could not care less about what's happened. Bottom line: He is in pretty good spirits.
That is a good question. Foremost, the press has been bizarre -- the New York Post earlier this week essentially reported that his return looks dim indeed. The Post was volleying the New York Daily News story earlier that indicated new NBC News chief Andy Lack wants him back as soon as possible. Remarkably, both pieces appear to be accurate, from what I can tell.
How can two diametrically opposed stories be accurate?
Let me go to particle physics, if you don't mind, to explain this. Radically simplified, quantum mechanics establishes that a particle's fate can have two potential outcomes at the same time. Brian's fate has at least two potential outcomes at this very moment. His chances of returning were 50-50 when he was suspended; they remain about the same now.
What has Lack told Williams?
Lack wants him back, or -- I should say -- Lack has indicated to Williams he wants him back in the anchor chair., There appears to be no reason to doubt Lack's word on this. Williams and Lack are friends. Lack helped to groom him. Lack knows he's a good anchor. And according to the recent New York magazine report, Lack wanted the suspension to last three months, not six. Perhaps all these reasons are why Williams is reasonably jaunty at the moment.
Or...perhaps Williams interpreted their conversations a little more optimistically than Lack intended? That's certainly possible, too.
What does Steve Burke, NBCUniversal chairman, want?
Here's where the story gets complicated. A Vanity Fair story on the NBC troubles cited Burke's anxiety over the bad PR that has overwhelmed the news division in recent months. There is now a sense, if not quite prevailing belief, that Burke is possibly even in a state of paralysis over his ongoing PR tsuris. If he brings back Williams and viewers revolt, that's bad. If he pushes Lester Holt -- who's done a terrific job -- back to the weekends, that could look bad, too, especially because Holt is the first solo African-American in TV history to hold this hugely important and symbolic job.
What's my hunch about Burke?
Honestly, I think he's just waiting for the report to be completed before making a final decision. The suspicion among many at NBC and elsewhere is that every time a story comes out (like the one in the Daily News) that says Williams is definitely coming back, he makes certain his top PR people leak to the press that other instances of Williams’ exaggerations have surfaced, and therefore an eventual return must be weighed against this. If true, this is a strategy that protects Burke, because it gives him a plausible out if the report truly is damning.
Does this indicate friction or at the very least a division between Burke and his hand-picked chief -- Lack -- to set NBC News straight again?
Yes -- and no. Yes, because obviously Lack is telling Williams that he will be coming back, while Burke is saying, "Not so fast." But I suspect that this is all just boardroom maneuvering, with Burke building a case for either outcome. It's called being "lawyerly" and "cautious." By the way, NBC vehemently denies all this speculation -- saying it's just overreading the situation and in fact misreading it. So noted.
But doesn't just about everyone think Brian is done at "Nightly"?
Yes, that is the industry consensus. I've yet to find one expert who thinks Williams can make a clean reentry because he is so damaged. But they are not the ones who will make the call. Lack will, and my hunch is if Lack gives the green light, Burke will defer to him.
Some reports say Brian will go "Ann Curry" on NBC if the outcome does not go his way. True?
"To go Ann Curry" might superficially mean to tear up on the air, and make your colleagues -- like Matt Lauer -- look like complete louses. But, um, this is not what Williams plans to do, or what the term means. It means if they offer him another job, he’ll sit on the bench and force them to buy out his contract. What it could also mean is that Williams has his own arsenal of information that he will use to embarrass NBC News if it should come to that. What could that possibly be? One can only imagine.
What is Brian trying to do to protect himself?
He is running a concurrent investigation of his own work. This investigation -- from what I understand -- involves checking over his past reporting and rechecking it. He also has a team assisting him in this endeavor. He wants to make certain that when NBC's report is laid in front of him, he'll not only have an answer for everything, but a rebuttal for everything. For example, I’ve heard Williams has a picture of himself with correspondent Richard Engel in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, which goes part of the way toward rebutting last week’s New York Times account citing the internal investigation that he was not there.
Why hasn't Brian simply apologized for the whole mess that -- really -- he started in the first place?
He has -- per some published accounts -- apologized privately many times. He hasn’t publicly because he can’t -- enjoined from speaking out about anything. But from what I gather, he also has some ambivalence about apologizing. He doesn’t think he set out to deceive viewers or colleagues, even if they think otherwise. That's part of the reason for his own shadow report -- he wants to prove this to the world when the time comes. I suspect he also wants to prove it to himself. Also, Williams, as most people know, badly botched his on-air "explanation" last February when saying that he actually had not been in the lead helicopter that was brought down by an RPG. He needed to apologize, and apologize again then -- but refused to. The words "I'm sorry" did not materialize. If he comes back, they have to, and forcefully, when the time comes for public amends. NBC wants contrition, and a sense that he knows he's been a bad boy.
Will NBC make a final decision by the so-called "upfronts"?
"Upfronts" are when the schedules are announced -- and I highly doubt it. Real news almost never occurs at upfronts, which are about one thing and one thing only: Selling. Why distract from that process with some big announcement about Williams?
Is there an urgency to making the decision?
I've thought about this a lot and -- in one regard -- there's no urgency at all. Let the process play out. Finish the report. Make certain both parties agree on the contents. Then move forward from there. However ... the process has now gotten out of hand, with leaks to the press, and dueling stories in the New York tabloids. NBC -- and Burke -- look like they are dithering, or intransigent. No one looks like they are in charge. There's a sense, too, that there's a hot war going on inside NBC News over this whole thing. So maybe there is an urgency to wrap it up as soon as possible. Plus, don't forget, we've got a presidential election coming up. Who will be NBC's lead anchor during this historic post-Obama election?
Could Brian go elsewhere -- to, say, MSNBC?
I've played with this idea and still believe it represents a best of all possible scenarios, in that it allows Williams to not only rebuild his tarnished brand, but rebuild MSNBC's. But this is probably a total pipe dream. Williams wants to go back to "Nightly," and Lack wants him back at "Nightly," too. MS will have to seek other saviors, in all likelihood.
Do NBC staffers want Brian back?
If you took a vote right now, the answer would be "no." But the last time I looked, network news divisions were not democracies. Sorry, but their vote doesn't count. Except maybe Tom Brokaw's.
What could Brian do next?
He's under a gag order -- which he is chafing under -- but once that is lifted, assuming there is not a complete rupture with NBC News, and that he is slated to return as anchor of "Nightly," he could do an interview with a major competitor. I've floated this idea, too, and I think it may have some real appeal -- go on "60 Minutes," and lay out the story for (say) Lesley Stahl. Also -- apologize. This would be the highest-rated "60" of the year, many years, and easily smoke Bruce Jenner's ABC tell-all (17-plus million).
What will be the final factor that will be determine the outcome?
I leave you with this question -- probably the only one that matters, really. Forget the report. Forget the "Ann Curry DEFCON Four" option. Forget the new puppy. What counts are the numbers. Lester's "Nightly" is now in second place. The ratings did start to decline during Williams' run -- one major reason ABC pushed out Diane Sawyer in favor of David Muir at "World News Tonight." ABC believed the move would hasten the decline. But if Lester's numbers don't improve -- and they really do have to improve, or not fall further behind "WNT" -- then Williams could be be back as anchor of "Nightly News" by this summer, or at least the chance of return is better than 50/50. But there's also what I'll call the "organizational" consideration. If Lack/Burke -- under the advisement of other key parties, like Brokaw -- come to the determination that Williams is simply too tarnished, then...no return
So we're back at 50/50. Meanwhile, I expect a final determination will come down in weeks -- not days.