More bad news for Brian Williams: NBC probe shows he 'embellished' stories

NBC insiders have leaked information about former Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and the stories he apparently inflated. Are company officials trying to push him out?

NBC Universal Photo
Brian Williams, anchoring for NBC News from the French Quarter in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is half-way through his six-month suspension for inflating stories he told about his reporting.

But based on a shower of leaks – apparently from company insiders privy to the network’s in-house investigation – Mr. Williams may be under pressure to leave NBC sooner rather than later.

According to reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN Money, NBC has found as many as 11 instances when Williams embellished his recounting of events – including after Hurricane Katrina, when he was covering the Iraq War, covering Israel’s military action against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and at Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings. 

In such cases, the anchorman (as is common practice among networks and cable channels) races to the scene of a big story, then vies with his or her competitors to give the most gripping on-the-ground report.

Williams’s embellishment, it seems, often came in later interviews, including appearances on The Daily Show and other entertainment venues.

Some NBC staff reportedly questioned Williams’s tales of reporting derring-do, but such questions became public when a former United States Navy SEAL disputed Williams’s claim that he flew with SEAL Team Six during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and that he’d later been given a piece of a helicopter used in the SEAL raid into Pakistan in 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden.

His recounting of events covering hurricane Katrina in 2005 – seeing a body floating in the street from his hotel window in the New Orleans French Quarter – was called into question as well.

"We have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field," NBC News president Deborah Turness said in announcing the suspension in February. Among those concerns: His coverage of the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and his story about meeting Pope John Paul II when Williams was a student at Catholic University in 1979.

Leading his daily “Politico Playbook” Sunday (a daily morning must-read for Washington insiders), Mike Allen explains what’s behind the string of leaks:

“Longtime broadcast executives say a triple crown of leaks about Brian Williams late last week appear to be an effort by NBC News to shame him into resigning, to avoid the messiness and possible additional expense of the firing. The brutal leaks were designed to send the message to Brian Williams and his superlawyer, Robert Barnett: ‘You’re dead. Now negotiate.’

“Williams was reported to be under a contract of as much as $50 million (five years, at up to $10 million each). Speculation is that he’ll get $20 million to $30 million to leave. The $20 million camp says that he’s so weak, he’ll get less than 50 cents on the dollar. The $30 million camp says Brian has plenty of ways to embarrass the bosses and colleagues who threw him under the bus, and NBC should stop the bleeding/leaking. ‘He knows things, too,’ a wise man pointed out.”

“In private conversations, TV agents and other industry veterans have speculated that the investigation's findings could be useful in a negotiation,” CNN Money reported Saturday. “NBC could offer to keep the investigation under wraps, or threaten to release it, depending on Williams’s willingness to leave.”

But Politico’s Allen also reports: “NBC insiders say his return is still possible. Look for a resolution over the next several weeks.” During Williams’s exile, Lester Holt has been anchoring the NBC Nightly News.

"Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us," Williams said in a memo to colleagues when he stepped down as anchor in February.

Increasingly, the question is becoming: Will he in fact ever return to a position of broadcast prominence?

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