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Brian Williams' return to 'Nightly News' uncertain, report says

Brian Williams visits with U.S. Special Forces in

Brian Williams visits with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan on June 12, 2008. Credit: NBC Universal / Subrata De

Disgraced NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams may -- or may not -- return to the broadcast he anchored for 10 years until he was suspended almost two months ago for lying about his reporting in the early days of the Iraq War, according to a story posted on Vanity Fair's website early Tuesday morning.

Per the piece, by veteran Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough, "people close to [NBC News chief Andy] Lack say nothing has yet been decided. Many NBC observers simply can’t imagine a network anchorman ever returning to his former position after being exposed as Williams has."

The story also noted that an internal investigation into Williams' reporting continues, while ominously noting: "People who have spoken to [NBC News producer Richard Esposito, who has conducted the investigation] say his group has compiled a number of other incidents that, taken as a whole, paint a portrait of Williams as a man who has consistently burnished his stories. "

The Vanity Fair story -- a long trip through the corporate turmoil at NBC News, with only an occasional sideways glance at the Williams' debacle -- essentially re-establishes the same point a New York magazine article on the subject did a few weeks ago: Williams was part of a larger culture grappling with other problems, and which was ill-equipped at the highly levels of the company to resolve them.

Nevertheless, what's missing in the story may perhaps be most telling: A clear indication of what lies ahead for Williams, who was not quoted, but is scheduled to return to "Nightly" late summer.

Indeed, bringing Williams back to "Nightly" in some capacity now seems like a long shot -- which the article doesn't exactly spell out, but which has become conventional wisdom within industry circles. The reasons: A reinstatement like this has never actually occurred -- after six months and in the wake of an incriminating internal investigation. But his return this summer would also mean the displacement of Lester Holt, a well-regarded NBC veteran who also happens to be African-American.

In fact, even in a stand-in capacity, Holt has now become the only African-American to have ever anchored a weeknight newscast for one of the major three broadcasts on a regular basis. (Max Robinson was part of a "World News Tonight" triumvirate back in the '70s, although Frank Reynolds was considered the lead anchor.)

Unseating Holt would appear problematic from a public relations perspective -- which NBC is now acutely sensitive to -- but also demands a clear answer to this question: Why drop Holt for someone who has admitted to lying about his reporting record in the past?

While the Vanity Fair piece virtually ignored Holt's role in the ongoing crisis, that very question has not escaped notice of the rank-and-file at NBC News.

 Separately, the Vanity Fair story also made note of Williams' mindset in the days leading up to the suspension . According to an account by a person described as an "NBC insider," Williams -- in the immediate aftermath of his on-air apology for saying he he had been aboard a helicopter brought down by a rocket-propelled gernade -- "couldn’t say the words ‘I lied,’ We could not force his mouth to form the words ‘I lied.’ He couldn’t explain what had happened. [He said,] ‘Did something happen to [my] head? Maybe I had a brain tumor, or something in my head?’ He just didn’t know. We just didn’t know. We had no clear sense what had happened. We got the best [apology] we could get.”

 NBC News Tuesday declined comment on the Vanity Fair story.

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