Brian Williams has been demoted from NBC News “Nightly News” anchor to breaking news anchor for sister cable news network MSNBC.
Williams, who served as the anchor of NBC’s flagship evening news program from 2004 to February of 2015 before being suspended for reporting exaggerations, will contribute across MSNBC programming covering breaking news, adding to the network’s hard news pivot over the last year away from pure opinion programming.
“I’m sorry,” Williams said in a statement. “I said things that weren’t true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust. I will greatly miss working with the team on Nightly News, but I know the broadcast will be in excellent hands with Lester Holt as anchor. I will support him 100% as he has always supported me. I am grateful for the chance to return to covering the news. My new role will allow me to focus on important issues and events in our country and around the world, and I look forward to it.”
It’s a rapid fall from grace for Williams, whose attorney Robert Barnett has been embroiled in cutthroat negotiations with NBC for months trying to salvage the disgraced anchor’s career–and salary, worth a reported $10 million annually.
In a statement, NBC News revealed the findings of its internal investigation into Williams’ reporting, spanning 10 years.
“The extensive review found that Williams made a number of inaccurate statements about his own role and experiences covering events in the field,” read a network press release. “The statements in question did not for the most part occur on NBC News platforms or in the immediate aftermath of the news events, but rather on late-night programs and during public appearances, usually years after the news events in question.”
“Brian now has the chance to earn back everyone’s trust. His excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity,” NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said.
“As you would imagine this was a difficult decision,” NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said. “Brian Williams has been with NBC News for a very long time and he has covered countless news events with honor and skill. As I said in February, we believe in second chances, and I am hopeful that this new beginning will be good for Brian and the organization. This matter has been extensively analyzed and deliberated on by NBC. We are moving forward.”
His return to MSNBC comes as the network has endured an increasingly bleak ratings stretch since 2013, regularly ranking third in most ratings measurements and sometimes fourth in the total day 25-54 demo. Primetime, in particular, has been a glaring issue for the network, as 8 p.m. host Chris Hayes, occupying the prime real estate timeslot in cable news, has never caught on ratings-wise like predecessors Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann had.
Hayes’ struggles have negatively impacted network star Rachel Maddow, whose show follows his. As TheWrap reported in “MSNBC’s Impending Shakeup,” Maddow was down 50 percent in the demo as recently as January. Daytime has also been a ratings sinkhole for the network, with personalities like 27-year-old Ronan Farrow and regular-guest-turned-anchor Joy Reid being anointed to anchors and then canceled in less than a year.
Williams anchored at MSNBC in the early parts of his NBC career, helming “The News with Brian Williams” during the network’s early, pre-“Lean Forward” period in the late 1990s. He was elevated to anchor of “Nightly News” in 2004, replacing the legendary Tom Brokaw.
His star rose quickly, with reports from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the Middle East during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah earning him respect across the industry. Viewership rose as Williams’ broadcast was the number-one rated nightly news broadcast in the business while he himself became a pseudo news celebrity, becoming a regular guest on late night comedy programs, where he slow jammed the news with stars like Jimmy Fallon.
But Williams’ storybook career came to a crashing halt in February when revelations came out he’d exaggerated stories about being in a helicopter shot down in Iraq in 2003 by RPG fire. After Williams honored a veteran at an NHL hockey game, angry veterans blew the whistle that Williams’ heroic tale–which he’d told everywhere from David Letterman to college campuses– of being on the downed helicopter was bogus, as he was on a trailing chopper not hit.
Williams apologized for his error on-air, claiming he made a mistake on recalling what had happened: “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now my apology.”
The apology did nothing to clamp down the media firestorm, and he was suspended a week later for six months without pay. Months of speculation about everything from Williams’ future to his mental health ensued, and reports came out suggesting an NBC News investigation had found at least 11 instances where Williams had exaggerated or misled while recounting stories he’s reported on.
NBC News/MSNBC Chairman Andrew Lack telling staff in May a decision on Williams’ future would be coming soon, and Thursday brought the news many staffers in the NBC News ranks will be pleased with, as most producers have complained to management about the prospects of Williams’ returning to NBC.
Whether Williams’ second stint at MSNBC will be a short-term rehabilitation in hopes of positioning him back to NBC News remains to be seen, but for now, Brian Williams will “Lean Forward” on cable news instead of anchoring the number-one evening news broadcast in America.