Reports that Brian Williams will be returning to NBC when his suspension ends in August but not as anchor or managing of editor of the “NBC Nightly News” took on new urgency with speculation on CNN that the announcement could be made Thursday.
It is expected to come as part of package announcing that Lester Holt, who has been filling in at the “Nightly News’ anchor desk since Williams was suspended four months ago for lying about his role in combat coverage, will become permanent anchor of the nightly news.
Ratings for the newscast have generally held since Holt took over for Williams, and it would be a pleasure to see the longtime understudy rewarded for quietly going about his business and doing good work.
But Williams is another story.
The demise of Brian Williams has become one of TV’s messier soap operas, and the sooner Andy Lack, the NBC News chairman, can put an end to the uncertainty for Williams and the evening newscast the better for all parties concerned.
But what does a news division do with someone whose credibility is in tatters?
The question has been asked in various media venues since May 30 when CNN’s Brian Stelter using anonymous sources first reported the possibility of Williams returning to NBC but not as anchorman.
On the May 31 edition of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” I said I thought it would be a mistake to have Williams return in any journalistic role. By lying about his combat reporting, he had tried to steal the honor of soldiers, sailors and Marines who had risked their lives to earn the gratitude and respect of their fellow citizens. That’s one audience that he would never win back.
And then, there are all the millennials who mock him on social media superimposing his image Zelig-like into scenes and events it would have been impossible for him to attend – to ridicule him for lying about where he was and what he did. That is not going to go away. In fact, if he is announced as returning in any kind of journalistic role, look for social media to explode with more mockery of his dishonesty.
There has been speculation that, perhaps, he could return to MSNBC, the beleaguered cable news channel Lack was also hired by corporate parent Comcast to fix. I don’t believe you fix a news channel, even one as ideologically compromised as MSNBC, by showcasing a serial liar on it.
But that’s assuming there are any standards left at MSNBC.
In February when “Stars & Stripes” first reported his lies about being in a helicopter that took heavy fire in Iraq in 2003, I said that once upon a time, when network news had ethical and journalistic standards, Williams would have been fired by the end of the week.
Many of my colleagues said Williams was “too big to fail,” and NBC would never fire him.
Beyond the spectacle of watching TV’s highest rated anchorman destroy himself through lies, the fall of Brian Williams has also been a test of the character of NBC News.
It is going to be fascinating to see how the network tries to spin the announcement if it does indeed bring him back.