How Lester Holt Dethroned Brian Williams: NBC’S Messy Changing of The Guard
The Daily Beast
June 18, 2015
At NBC News, there was both good news and bad news from the executive suite on Thursday.
For workaday reporters and producers, the good news is that their respected and well-liked colleague, Lester Holt—who has been anchoring the troubled Nightly News program on an interim basis since early February—was named permanent anchor of the network’s flagship evening newscast.
However, unlike his disgraced predecessor Brian Williams and his fellow anchors at two other networks, David Muir at ABC’s World News Tonight and Scott Pelley at the CBS Evening News, Holt is not getting the title of managing editor.
The bad news, at least for many of the journalists at the network, was NBC News Chairman Andy Lack’s announcement that Williams—who was suspended without pay four months ago after he was caught telling fibs about his adventures in news coverage—will be returning to high-profile roles at the Comcast-owned cable and broadcast outlets.
Starting in mid-August, Lack said in his statement, Williams will serve not only as “anchor of breaking news and special reports” at the ratings-challenged MSNBC cable operation but also as “a breaking news anchor of NBC News live special reports when Holt is not available.”
While some at the Peacock Network greeted Lack’s announcement as a welcome display of compassion for a fallen coworker, these Williams sympathizers appeared to be in the minority.
Unlike his predecessor Tom Brokaw, the anchor did little to make friends among his colleagues, and had a reputation for being standoffish and self-absorbed, with little interest in hard-hitting journalism or promoting the work of others.
“People in the newsroom are furious,” said an NBC News veteran who, like others who reacted to the personnel shuffle, spoke on condition of anonymity. “Everyone in the hallways is very, very upset and depressed about it.”
A second NBC veteran told The Daily Beast: “I have yet to speak to anyone in the news organization who wants Brian back and thinks Brian deserves to be back. He has zero support among the rank and file. I shouldn’t say ‘zero.’ There’s almost no support for him in the newsroom.”
Williams—who twice sat down with Today show star Matt Lauer in recent days for a mea culpa interview to be broadcast Friday morning and later on Nightly News—offered this apology in the NBC press release: “I’m sorry. 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.”
Lack echoed: “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.”
And NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke, the ultimate determiner of Williams’s fate, said: “As you would imagine this was a difficult decision. 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.”
According to network sources, Burke and NBC News President Deborah Turness (who, interestingly, is not quoted in the NBC release) were at times skeptical of the idea of a Williams comeback, but Lack made a strong case that the anchor could be rehabilitated, having nurtured Williams’s career and positioned him to succeed longtime Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw during Lack’s first 8-year term running NBC News in the 1990s.
Brokaw—whom Burke consulted during the current crisis—stepped down in favor of Williams in December 2004; the suave, handsome Williams, now 56, consistently out-rated his rival newscasts over the following decade, and last December he re-upped for an additional five years, signing a contract reportedly worth $50 million after flirting with the notion of hosting his own late-night talk show.
Williams, who once confided to a colleague that he wanted ultimately to be a late-night impresario like NBC’s inconic host of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Jack Paar, reportedly asked an unreceptive Leslie Moonves, the head of CBS, to consider him as a replacement for David Letterman.
Then, in one of life’s frequent reenactments of the Icarus Myth, Williams crashed and burned.
In his official statement, Lack said a months-long internal review of Williams’s exaggerations concluded “that Williams made a number of inaccurate statements about his own role and experiences covering events in the field.”
But Lack implied that Williams’s embellishments were somewhat mitigated because: “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.”
Although Williams circulated his tall tales promiscuously on various late-night entertainment shows and other public venues over the decade he served as the Nightly News anchor, NBC’s internal investigation is said to have come up with only two instances in which he exaggerated on his newscast.
In the exaggeration that precipitated his downfall, Williams claimed erroneously on his Jan. 30 Nightly News broadcast that, during a 2003 visit to Iraq, he was riding in a Black Hawk helicopter that was hit and forced down by rocket-propelled grenade.
Without informing his bosses, Williams offered a half-hearted apology on his Feb. 4 newscast after the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes exposed his prevarication.
In the second apparent embellishment on May 3, 2011—shortly after the special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden—Williams told Nightly News viewers: “Now, people might be hearing about SEAL Team 6. I happen to have the great honor of flying into Baghdad with them at the start of the war”—which prompted members of the elite team of Navy warriors to deny Williams’s claim.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the internal investigation, supervised by NBC News investigative producer Richard Esposito, also included a damning clip reel of Williams’s proliferating shaggy dog stories that might have been used as leverage in the negotiations for his comeback.
The 56-year-old Holt, who has been away on vacation this week, will doubtless also be renegotiating a richer contract appropriate to his elevated status.
It wasn’t a deal breaker that he isn’t being named managing editor of Nightly News; according to an NBC source, it was decided, based on the experience with Williams, that the managing editor title—bestowing final authority on the newscast’s content—gives an anchor too much power.
Holt, who has worked in television news for 34 years, declared in the NBC release: “This is an enormous honor. The respect and admiration I have for the Nightly News team has only grown deeper over the last several months that we’ve been together.
“Day-in and day-out under an uncomfortable spotlight they have produced world-class journalism. I’m very proud and grateful to be part of such an unflappable and dedicated team of professionals as we move forward together.”
Burke, meanwhile, said: “Lester stepped into the anchor chair in a trying time and has really come through for us. We are lucky to have him and I know he will continue to do great things at NBC News for years to come.”
Lack praised Holt’s ability to go “straight to the heart of every story and…find its most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience. In many ways, television news stands at a crossroads, and Lester is the perfect person to meet the moment.”
He also happens to be American network television’s first African-American solo anchor—a fact that was noted with approval Thursday by the National Association of Black Journalists.
NABJ President Bob Butler, a San Francisco radio reporter at KCBS, told The Daily Beast: “Right now I’m ecstatic that after many years of asking the cable and broadcast networks to reflect the diversity of the nation during prime time—not just on the weekends, not just on the overnights—it’s finally happening and NBC is leading the way.”
Butler added: “Obviously I’m thrilled for Lester…This is a guy who has tremendous credibility, tremendous journalistic instincts, tremendous journalistic experience—the kind of person that when you have an important news story, when you hear him tell it, you believe him.”
As The Daily Beast reported in February, when Holt initially stepped in for the suspended Williams, Holt became known more for his relentless work ethic than his glitzy star power as anchor of the weekend Nightly News, the weekend Today show and the magazine show Dateline.
During his hours and hours anchoring MSNBC’s coverage of the cliffhanger 2000 presidential election, he earned the nicknames “iron pants” and “Scud Stud of Electoral College Crisis.”
Former MSNBC contributor Amy Holmes recalled working alongside Holt during that contentious election: “the counts, recounts, hanging chads, court battles,” as she put it.
“Lester Holt was always lovely, kind, gracious and encouraging. He had a very grounded view of TV, rolling with all of the constant changes to his anchor time slot: 7pm one week, 5pm the next.
“Lester took it all in stride, calm and steady. That’s how it looked as a contributor on the set in Secaucus, New Jersey. And, I imagine, how he looked to the viewers at home: comfortable, reassuring, easy, no ego—just the news.”
Another NBC veteran noted that Holt is “the classic team player…I watched my colleagues agitating to succeed David Gregory on Meet The Press with naked ambition, but you’d never see that kind of thing from Lester.”
Still, the fact that his predecessor will be in such close proximity might reasonably give him pause.
Speaking of Brokaw, who maintains an office at 30 Rock, Williams allegedly quipped to Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, according to New York magazine: “At least your ghost is dead [a reference to the late Tim Russert]. Mine is still walking the building.”
Although NBC stressed that Williams will not, repeat not, return to his former perch at Nightly News, an NBC News insider speculated about Thursday’s developments: “Does Lester have to worry about Brian eyeing his anchor chair?”
– co written with Lloyd Grove