On a snowy evening in December, Brian Williams and his wife, Jane, met with a small group of NBC executives for a celebratory dinner in a private room at Del Posto, Mario Batali’s restaurant in Chelsea. Williams had just notched his tenth anniversary anchoring the top-rated Nightly News, and NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke wanted to commemorate the past—and lock in the network’s future. For months, Williams had been in contract negotiations with Burke, a standoff NBC couldn’t afford to lose. Williams was the face of NBC News, with a nightly audience of more than 8 million people. More important, his program was an island of stability in a news division roiled by a series of self-inflicted crises.
No one at the table knew whether Williams wanted to stay in the anchor chair. Although he seemed genetically bred to be a newscaster—with that perfect almond hair, a jutting jaw, and a commanding yet calming baritone—Williams had, in recent years, developed ambitions to do more than read a teleprompter for 22 minutes a night. To the surprise of many, he had pulled off an unlikely second act as an entertainer. He parried penis jokes with Jon Stewart, slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, confidently hosted SNL, and played “Brian Williams” on 30 Rock. “I love late-night comedy,” he told a friend last year. For one recent birthday, Jane Williams arranged for her husband to take the stage with members of Upright Citizens Brigade. “Tim Russert always used to say, ‘Brian would have been a better Chevy Chase than Chevy Chase,’ ” recalled a former NBC producer.
Now, at 55, staring down another five years in the anchor chair, Williams began to tell friends he was thinking of making his side gig his main act. He relished the freedom of improv and expressed frustration at the conventions of network news. “Brian chafed at reading the prompter,” a senior NBC executive said. He also felt embraced by the entertainment community in a way he never was by NBC’s old guard, especially Russert and Tom Brokaw, his predecessor. Brokaw’s coldness seemed to heighten Williams’s sensitivities about being a blue-collar guy from New Jersey who had never finished college or been a war correspondent. Last summer, around the time Chuck Todd took over as moderator of Meet the Press, several staffers recalled that Williams told him: “At least your ghost is dead. Mine is still walking the building.”
Comedy would have been a path out of Brokaw’s shadow. A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called Rock Center. Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But Rock Center ended up more like a softer 60 Minutes, and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested. (CBS declined to comment.)
The assignment of persuading Williams to continue to play the part of anchor fell to NBC News president Deborah Turness. A talented 47-year-old British TV-news executive, Turness had been at NBC for a year and a half. News chair Patricia Fili-Krushel hired her in May 2013 with the stated mandate to reverse ratings crises at Meet the Press and Today and the unspoken goal of busting up the boys’ club that had dominated network news in general and NBC News in particular. (Fili-Krushel and Turness declined to comment.)
Turness had long ago proved she could run with the boys. In her career at Britain’s ITV, she’d covered wars and Washington and risen through the ranks to run the news division. She was known for her tenacity. “She almost became a pain in the ass. She wouldn’t let an idea go,” says ITV chief newscaster Mark Austin. At Nightly News, Turness set about hiring more diverse correspondents and pushing for bigger exclusives, but she ran up against resistance from Williams, who was used to running his show his way. Like his predecessor Brokaw, Williams held the titles of anchor and managing editor, meaning he had final say over all the show’s content. Last summer, with ABC World News eating into Nightly’s ratings, Turness told Williams to tape more live promos, a suggestion that infuriated the anchor, according to a source. But eventually, thanks in part to some effusive praise in a presentation to advertisers in the fall, Turness won him over. Over the holidays, Williams would even send her an optimistic note, according to a friend: “2015 is going to be our year together.”
Near the end of the night at Del Posto, Turness raised her glass and presented Williams with a gift: Edward R. Murrow’s mahogany writing table. Weeks earlier, Matt Lauer had told her that the 1940s desk was for sale at an L.A. antiques dealer. The catalogue listing said: “This venerable signed desk with its special, unique provenance can be yours, assisting you in becoming the next greatest icon within your own chosen industry!” Turness hoped it would remind Williams that he was America’s most trusted anchor—the Murrow of his day. He shouldn’t give that up to be Jimmy Fallon.
Williams seemed genuinely moved. He announced on the spot that he had decided to stay at NBC for another five years. Turness gasped. Burke broke into applause. Everyone embraced. No one had expected him to make an announcement that night. “It was,” a senior NBC executive recalls, “like we were a family.”
Less than two months later, of course, NBC News would be in chaos—its anchor publicly embarrassed for a virtual back catalogue of Hemingwayesque yarns, and its executives struggling in vain to figure out how to control the damage. But while the Williams fiasco might seem to be the cause of NBC News’ struggles, viewed through a wider lens it looks more like the symptom of a much bigger problem. Over the past year, all of the NBC News marquee franchises—Today, Meet the Press, Nightly News—have been badly damaged by bungled talent decisions and control-room shake-ups. Taken together, the upheavals portray a news division that has allowed talent to take over. That was the theme that echoed through interviews with dozens of current and former NBC News journalists, executives, agents, and rival-network officials: “There’s no adult supervision,” one senior NBC executive tells me. “If you don’t manage, it turns into a bad version of Ron Burgundy,” says another.
Whether Fili-Krushel and Turness were in the process of righting those management problems or exacerbating them is the subject of much debate at NBC. But whatever the case, their turn at the wheel seems to be over. In the wake of the Williams crisis, Burke began a series of secret conversations with Andrew Lack, a former NBC News president, about coming back to run the division. On the morning of March 6, the network announced that it was appointing Lack chairman. As part of the regime change, Fili-Krushel would take a corporate position at NBC Universal and Turness would remain as president, albeit substantially diminished by the reorganization.
One of the more interesting things to note about Lack in the current context is that he and Williams go way back. It was Lack who made Williams a star in the ’90s by giving him an hour-long newscast on MSNBC; later, he steered Williams’s ascension to Brokaw’s anchor chair on Nightly News. Lack also advised Williams during the depths of the crisis last month and even lobbied Burke for a shorter suspension.
So it’s possible that, as inconceivable as it might have seemed just a few weeks ago, the person who might come out on top in all this is Brian Williams. But no one believes that will solve the problems of NBC News.
The story of how things got this bad at NBC begins long before Brian Williams started getting his facts wrong (or at least long before he started getting called out for it). Steve Burke replaced Jeff Zucker as CEO of NBC Universal when Comcast took over the company in 2011. Although Burke was descended from television royalty—his father, Daniel Burke, had run Capital Cities, parent of ABC—he had no experience with news himself. So, a year after becoming CEO, he put all of NBC’s domestic news operations—NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC—under the command of Fili-Krushel, a former ABC television president and Time Warner executive, who, critics point out, also had no news experience.
It was a difficult brood to manage, with behind-the-scenes infighting often spilling out into the press and even on-camera. By 2012, then–NBC News president Steve Capus had all but stopped speaking to Jim Bell, the executive producer of Today, who Capus feared was angling for his job. Caught in the power struggle was Ann Curry, who was unceremoniously dumped from the morning show after a year of poor ratings in the anchor chair, resulting in a famously weepy on-camera good-bye. Morale was bad, and the press was brutal. Lauer, whom many blamed for Curry’s offing, never fully recovered his reputation. Burke ordered Fili-Krushel to clean up the mess. “He got so fed up with Capus and Bell,” a senior NBC staffer says. Bell left Today in December 2012 to oversee NBC’s Olympics coverage. Two months later, Capus resigned and Fili-Krushel was in the market for a new NBC News president.
In the winter of 2013, she met Turness for tea at Sarabeth’s on the Upper East Side, and they ended up talking for hours. As top editor of ITV News, a commercial competitor to the BBC, Turness had become the first woman to run a TV-news division in Britain. Under her command, ITV’s news programs dominated the ratings. Producers dubbed her “Mad Dog” for her style of shooting ideas at her staff and constantly driving them to land exclusives. “Deborah is one of the most talented executives I’ve worked with,” says John Hardie, CEO of ITV’s parent company. “She’s the rare combination of someone who is a creative talent, someone with ideas, who is driven, but who also combines that with an inspirational style of leadership.”
Turness’s success, and her glamour, made her something of a celebrity in London media circles. The papers noted how she competed in the 33-day Paris-to-Beijing off-road car rally, was once married to a roadie for the Clash, and performed Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” at a major media conference. In 2011, she was the only journalist invited to Buckingham Palace for the queen’s state dinner for Barack Obama.
Turness arrived in New York with big plans. She wanted to focus on NBC News’ three brands, modernize their digital efforts, create a centralized booking unit to land bigger guests, and hire a cadre of new correspondents. But she also gave NBC News staffers reasons to chafe at her management style. “It can be really chaotic. She fires shit away and sends people spinning,” one senior producer says. In an interview with the New York Times in August 2014, she offended staffers while trying to make the point that NBC needed to step up its digital efforts. “NBC News hadn’t kept up with the times in all sorts of ways, for maybe 15 years,” she said. “I think the organization had gone to sleep.” Staffers were outraged by the quote, which they read as a broadside against the whole organization. Tom Brokaw advised Turness to call veteran journalists, like justice correspondent Pete Williams, to repair her relationships.
Turness’s most important assignment was to fix the second-place Today, but as she began to attack Today’s stalled ratings, a new crisis flared: Meet the Press. In August 2013, her first month on the job, David Gregory’s ratings cratered to the lowest point in 21 years of Meet the Press, putting the show in last place in its time slot. On top of the ratings meltdown, Gregory had found himself mired in embarrassing on-air flaps. He violated Washington, D.C.’s gun laws by waving a 30-round magazine in front of the camera during an interview with the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. And he was widely criticized for musing about whether Glenn Greenwald should be prosecuted for having “aided and abetted” NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Gregory had never been a natural heir to Tim Russert, even by his own admission. According to a former staffer, when Gregory got the job in 2008, he told a Russert producer, “I think one of my problems is that I’m just not a political junkie.” Before Turness arrived, NBC had conducted focus-group research revealing that viewers felt they didn’t know Gregory. So the network hired a consultant to interview his friends and family in the hope of finding ways to translate his wry off-camera personality to the show. Producers coached him to reveal more about himself on-air—to talk, for example, about being an observant Jew. But it didn’t seem to be working.
Despite his obvious shortcomings, Turness dug in and tried to save Gregory. In January, she convened a meeting in Washington with Gregory and his producers and proposed a flurry of ideas to shake up the show—booking politically active celebrities like Angelina Jolie and taping in front of a live studio audience. And music: At the end of a Nelson Mandela segment the previous month, why couldn’t they have brought in a band to play the Specials reggae song “Free Nelson Mandela” during the closing credits? Gregory found her suggestions outlandish.
As Gregory’s lackluster ratings continued throughout the spring of 2014, others began jockeying for his seat. Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough made an aggressive play (though one that was not taken seriously), as did Washington correspondent Chuck Todd. Gregory became the target of humiliating leaks. In April, the Washington Post reported that NBC had hired “a psychological consultant” to work with Gregory. Turness defended Gregory and huddled with executives to try to plug the leaks. At one point, according to a source, Fili-Krushel called Todd’s agent Jay Sures at UTA and told him to cut it out; Sures denied he was behind the bad press.
By last summer, Turness finally came around to what others had been saying for a year: Gregory had to go. She secretly began searching for a replacement. Todd was the obvious heir, but Turness and Fili-Krushel also considered blowing up the show. At one point, they sat down with Jon Stewart to gauge his interest. “They were exploring it in the way of, ‘Maybe it’s time to do something ridiculous,’ ” Stewart told New York last year. Stewart passed, and in late July, they settled on Todd.
But even Gregory’s departure was chaotic. As both sides were negotiating his exit, word leaked out and NBC decided to cut him loose without an on-air farewell. Turness and Fili-Krushel reportedly didn’t want to risk another Ann Curry situation. “They wouldn’t let David go on-air to say good-bye,” a person close to Gregory tells me. “It was the most appalling thing they could have done.” Gregory’s 20-year career at NBC ended with a tweet. “I leave NBC as I came—humbled and grateful,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Turness was discovering that the hothouse of Manhattan media was far more intense than anything she had experienced in London. The New York Post mercilessly chronicled her missteps. She was seen as both too harsh in her treatment of Gregory and too weak in taking so long to make the decision. “Very few [executives] would be getting this kind of attention and scrutiny,” says chief foreign-affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell of the magnifying glass Turness has been under since the beginning. “She’s high profile, and she’s the first female news executive.”
In September 2014, Turness turned her full attention to the assignment on which she knew she’d ultimately be judged: getting Today back on top. The venerable morning show reportedly generates nearly $500 million in revenue and is the financial engine that powers NBC News. But in the two years since Curry’s axing, Today had continued to trail Good Morning America badly, costing NBC millions in advertising dollars. “Ann’s the ghost of the Today show,” a former senior producer says. “People are still mourning the loss. It’s like a dysfunctional family that was waiting for a new leader to essentially give it direction.”
Fixing Today was by far the most complicated of Turness’s projects. Senior producers openly wondered whether the current anchors—Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Natalie Morales, and Al Roker—could ever develop enough on-set chemistry to catch GMA. Those concerns, however, were drowned out by a powerful voice: Matt Lauer. In meetings, according to sources, Lauer told producers that the programming, not the talent, was to blame for the soft ratings. He called GMA’s mix of celebrity scandal, grisly crime stories, and viral videos “tabloid garbage.” Today, he insisted, needed a mix of hard news and uplifting stories, segments Lauer called “relatable.” According to producers, Lauer seemed so rattled by the backlash that followed Curry’s ouster that he was adamant that NBC couldn’t make any further talent changes. “I felt we should be focused on the content of the show,” Lauer tells me. “We were all pulling together to make the show better.”
Fili-Krushel signed off on Lauer’s vision for Today before hiring Turness—which essentially tied Turness’s hands. “Pat is on the same page with me,” Lauer told a senior producer. “Now everybody needs to get on the same page.” Turness and her team codified Lauer’s programming dicta into a formal strategy. She told staffers that the Today brand needed to be about “Substance, Connection, Uplift.” The show should be about “finding the light in the darkness.” For example, if producers ran a segment on a school shooting, she wanted them to find the teacher who saved students’ lives. Celebrity and crime were out. Disgruntled staffers rearranged the letters and came up with their own acronym: suc.
Producers began to grumble that Lauer was preventing Today from evolving. When Fili-Krushel proposed installing a troika of female producers to oversee the show, Lauer and Guthrie nixed the plan. “This is like Lilith Fair,” Lauer complained to a senior producer, according to a source, referring to the ’90s all-female rock festival. Lauer’s handpicked choice, Don Nash, was named executive producer instead. And last March, NBC poached Josh Elliott from GMA, which many producers interpreted as an effort to groom a successor to Lauer. A logical introduction would be to have Elliott join the cast as a newsreader—Natalie Morales’s position. Turness reportedly had her doubts about Morales in that role anyway. (Morales was furious when, months earlier, Turness told her she needed more personality on the air. “I want more Natalie,” she said.) But Lauer didn’t want Elliott to replace Morales.
Turness was boxed in. To catch GMA, Today needed to consider a talent shake-up, but in June 2014, she had helped persuade Lauer to re-sign his contract. And Lauer would fight changes tooth and nail.
The situation came to a head in September. Today’s ratings had stalled over the summer. In something of a last-ditch effort, Fili-Krushel and Turness tapped a brash, 38-year-old ESPN producer named Jamie Horowitz to devise a turnaround plan. But Horowitz had a cocky style and a big mouth, and he immediately set the staff on edge. According to one senior Today staffer, he would play a game of Survivor with producers. “If you’re on an island and you could keep three senior producers, whom would you keep?” According to another source, Horowitz was stoking unrest among the cast. “He told Tamron Hall she had to watch her back because Natalie was trashing her. But then he told Natalie that Tamron was trashing her.” (Horowitz declined to comment.)
Fili-Krushel even heard Horowitz was badmouthing Turness in his second week on the job.
“Did you throw Deborah under the bus?” she asked him during a September meeting in her office.
“Well, they were complaining,” Horowitz replied.
Horowitz’s real problem, however, was getting on the wrong side of Lauer. According to sources, the two met for dinner in October to discuss Horowitz’s plans for the show. Horowitz told Lauer he wanted to swap out Morales and Willie Geist by the end of the year to find a visible role for Josh Elliott. He also wanted to reevaluate Guthrie in six months; if she didn’t improve, he would consider moving Hoda Kotb into her seat. Lauer pushed back hard.
“I’m not going through this again,” he said, referring to the Curry debacle.
“Matt, I’ll be the bad guy, I’ll take the hit in the press,” Horowitz countered. Lauer was unswayed. During a regularly scheduled lunch with Burke, he told the CEO that he had “concerns” about Horowitz.
On the morning of November 11, Horowitz presented his turnaround plan to Turness and a handful of executives, distributing only hard copies to prevent leaks. According to sources, Horowitz stood in front of a magnetic board and moved anchor names around like chess pieces: replace Guthrie with Hoda Kotb; replace Morales and Hall with ESPN sportscaster Samantha Ponder and Entertainment Tonight correspondent Brooke Anderson; Josh Elliott could be groomed to replace Lauer in two years.
Turness expressed support for Horowitz’s casting ideas and even pushed him to think bigger. “This is not aggressive enough of a plan,” she said, according to a high-level source. “Very good meeting. Looking forward to making plans,” Turness texted him after, according to people who saw the message. Horowitz planned to present his plan for final approval to Fili-Krushel on Monday afternoon.
But Fili-Krushel and Turness were also growing increasingly concerned about the staff unrest and leaks in the press. The Friday before Horowitz was supposed to present, Turness called him into her office and blamed him for a “Page Six” item speculating that he was a candidate to replace her.
“I don’t trust you,” she said. “We’re not going to go any further with the strategy we talked about until I can trust you.”
“How can I make you trust me?” he said, denying he had been the source of the leak.
“That’s your problem.”
Another damaging rumor was leaked Monday morning, when NBC’s PR shop got a call from a reporter at Us Weekly, who claimed Horowitz had just fired Morales and Geist. Turness and Fili-Krushel were apoplectic. Turness called Horowitz to her office and fired him after just ten weeks.
In full damage-control mode, Turness issued a statement: “In response to the false rumors that have been circulated about our anchor team, NBC wants to be absolutely clear: The rumors are wrong—period. This is the team we are committed to. And this is the team that our viewers turn to in the morning.” If Turness had in fact wanted to shake up the cast of Today, now she couldn’t.
Just a couple of months after the crisis at Today, Alexandra Wallace, one of Turness’s deputies, called Fili-Krushel and Turness with terrible news: Brian Williams had just admitted in an interview with Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, that he had embellished a January 30 Nightly News segment about being in a helicopter that was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade during the opening hours of the Iraq War in 2003. (Williams had, in fact, been on a different chopper that landed uneventfully an hour after the attack.) “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other,” he told the paper. Making matters worse, Williams had known for days that vets were questioning his account, and hadn’t told Turness. In a panic, he posted a rambling apology on Facebook.
This was Wednesday, February 4, less than three hours before Williams was due on the air. Turness and Fili-Krushel scrambled to draft a statement that he could read into the camera that would somehow align with his confusing explanations.
It didn’t work. Williams’s unconvincing on-air apology catalyzed the controversy, as did his decision to be photographed yukking it up with Tom Hanks at a Rangers game later that night. Reporters began digging into his past reports and appearances on the late-night circuit. There was the time he met seal Team Six on a military flight into Baghdad, and when he received a knife and a piece of fuselage from the stealth Black Hawk that had crashed during the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. “It’s one of the toughest things to get, and the president has a piece of it as well,” he boasted to radio host Dan Patrick last February. In Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, he claimed to have witnessed a man commit suicide inside the Superdome; encountered a dead body floating face down in the French Quarter; escaped gangs overrunning his hotel; and contracted dysentery by drinking polluted water. Under scrutiny, the stories seemed exaggerated at best, fabricated at worst. Williams went from being the anchor who could deliver a joke to the butt of them.
NBC didn’t know what to believe. Williams was sticking by his accounts even as they were being picked apart in public. “I did see a dead body. Talk to the editor of the [New Orleans] Times-Picayune,” he told Fili-Krushel in a meeting.
On Thursday afternoon, Burke called an emergency meeting with Turness and Fili-Krushel and ordered them to find out the facts. Turness had already assigned investigative producer Richard Esposito, a hard-charging former Daily News editor, to conduct a review that would be overseen by Kimberley Harris, NBC Universal’s general counsel. Tom Brokaw canceled a vacation in the Virgin Islands with friends Ken Auletta and Walter Isaacson to advise Burke.
By Friday, with the public-relations disaster spiraling out of control, NBC executives concluded that Williams needed to be off the air before Monday’s newscast. The problem was getting him out of the chair gracefully.
The next morning, Turness, Fili-Krushel, Wallace, and Adam Miller, Burke’s communications adviser, arrived at Williams’s East Side apartment to deliver the news. According to sources, Turness and Fili-Krushel advised Williams he needed to step down, while his wife, Jane, and lawyer Robert Barnett countered that they were rushing to judgment. “You can’t take him off the air until you have all the facts,” Barnett said. Jane, who had refused to read any of the negative press about her husband, said: “If you take him off the air you’ll be sending the message that he did something wrong.”
Williams seemed paralyzed. “Honey, you haven’t seen the stuff.”
Implicit in the Williams camp’s position was a financial threat. NBC had just signed him to a five-year deal reported to be worth $10 million a year, and NBC was risking a messy contract dispute if they steamrolled him. By the afternoon, Williams agreed not to appear on Monday’s Nightly News if NBC allowed him to make the announcement himself.
But benching Williams was only a stopgap. NBC still needed to decide his fate. There was more bad news on Sunday when Esposito delivered a 45-minute presentation at Burke’s apartment, confirming that he had discovered more issues with Williams’s accounts. “We quickly figured out we were not going to bring Brian back in the next week or two,” recalls one executive who was in the room. But just how to punish the network’s star anchor proved to be an excruciating decision. “We talked about whether it should be a lengthier suspension, a termination, or a resignation,” the executive says. “Burke had CEO friends advising him Brian should be fired,” another source familiar with the talks tells me. Lack called Burke and asked him to spare Williams with a short suspension. On Monday night, Burke and his team agreed to a six-month suspension without pay, but given the stakes of the decision, Burke told everyone to sleep on it.
On Tuesday morning, February 10, Turness and Fili-Krushel reconvened in Burke’s conference room. The three of them still agreed on the suspension. Later that morning, Burke summoned Williams to his apartment and told him the decision. He made no promises that Williams would keep his job. Lester Holt, the well-liked Nightly News weekend anchor, would take over. Afterward, Burke dropped Williams off at home on his way to NBC.
The Nightly News crisis exposed deep-rooted anger among many NBC journalists, who felt frustrated that Williams had been allowed to gain so much power. In recent years, the anchor had churned through executive producers who challenged him.
Others complained about Williams’s unwillingness to go after hard-hitting stories. Multiple sources told me that former NBC investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Lisa Myers battled with Williams over stories. In February 2013, Isikoff failed to interest Williams in a piece about a confidential Justice Department memo that justified killing American citizens with drones. He instead broke the story on Rachel Maddow. That October, Myers couldn’t get Williams to air a segment about how the White House knew as far back as 2010 that some people would lose their insurance policies under Obamacare. Frustrated, Myers posted the article on NBC’s website, where it immediately went viral. Williams relented and ran it the next night. “He didn’t want to put stories on the air that would be divisive,” a senior NBC journalist told me. According to a source, Myers wrote a series of scathing memos to then–NBC senior vice-president Antoine Sanfuentes documenting how Williams suppressed her stories. Myers and Isikoff eventually left the network (and both declined to comment).
Since the scandal has proved to be something of a release valve for resentment that had been building toward Williams, it could make the climate at NBC News inhospitable to his possible return. “Very, very few people like him,” one senior journalist told me. “The phrase you hear constantly: ‘What goes around comes around.’ ”
For her part, Turness spent the days since the Williams scandal holding nonstop meetings with staffers in New York, Washington, and London, stumping to win their support and establish authority. This had been an issue since her arrival, some observers said. The multiple layers of management created by Burke left producers and journalists confused about who, ultimately, was in charge. “[Turness] doesn’t have nearly the authority that previous presidents did,” says Robert Wright, the former NBC chairman.
Turness’s supporters contend she tried all the right things. “I’ve been impressed,” Lauer tells me. “She doesn’t do something just to make it appear she’s active and in charge. She talks to a lot of people and considers all options.” “She was so open and transparent,” adds Chuck Todd. “Sometimes in a crisis, when a whole company is looking for leadership, you get an opportunity.”
But Burke had had enough. The stakes were too high to see if Fili-Krushel and Turness could turn things around. While NBC News represents a tiny part of Comcast’s $69 billion in revenue, it is an invaluable source of prestige for the Philadelphia cable giant that routinely receives the lowest scores on the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. And as Comcast lobbies to persuade the government to approve its $45 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable, the scandals at NBC News risk providing one more reason regulators might not want to let Comcast control a vast swath of the broadband market.
During the height of the Williams scandal, Burke told a friend that Fili-Krushel had gone “AWOL,” according to a source. In late February, he began his talks with Lack, and a few days later told Fili-Krushel that he was thinking of bringing him in to replace her. “Steve’s thinking was this would be a time for new leadership,” one Burke adviser told me. “The Williams situation caused us to feel we wanted to have a real, experienced, accomplished journalist running NBC News.”
Though Lack had led NBC on a storied run of ratings dominance in the ’90s, the decision to bring him back struck many inside and outside the network as an odd one. Lack was known as a showman and a talent whisperer, but he’s been out of the broadcast-news trenches for more than a decade and is not considered a digital innovator. He also represents a different type of executive than Burke typically favors. When Comcast took over NBC, Burke told colleagues that “he didn’t want outsize personalities at NBC anymore. That era was over,” a former executive recalled. But Lack is outsize and then some. “I am America’s news leader,” he once boasted to the New York Times.
On the afternoon of March 6, Lack rallied the staff of Nightly News. “I know this has just been a misery from hell these last four weeks,” he told them. “What you guys have gone through … it’s really remarkable work given the nature of the beast, the circumstances you were operating under, the news cycle, and the demons in it.”
Many people at NBC see Lack’s return as a sign that Burke is trying to rehabilitate Williams. But NBC’s internal investigation continues, and the network faces some hard choices in the weeks ahead. Does it make the results of the inquiry public? How damaging do the findings have to be to end Williams’s career? And what message will it send if the network removes Holt, a well-liked, hardworking journalist who so far has held on to Williams’s ratings? “We’re playing with fire,” a senior staffer said. “Lester’s more than paid his dues.”
As Williams awaits NBC’s decision, he’s been strategizing with his close circle of advisers, including his wife, Lack, and former Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer. Under the terms of his suspension, Williams is banned from speaking to the press. “He can’t wait until he can speak,” a close friend told me. “He’s just anxious to get back to work. And he can’t wait to respond.”
There’s a chance, of course, that Williams’s stories could check out. One former colleague who spoke to Williams when he was in New Orleans during Katrina recalled him mentioning he saw the dead body. Meyer told me that Williams once showed him the piece of the SEALS’ stealth helicopter. “Forgetting what they say happened or didn’t happen, as an observer, he’s gone to some of the most dangerous places in the world, and that’s unquestionable,” Meyer says.
Burke, sources at NBC tell me, has truly not made up his mind about Williams’s fate. For now, the anchor is in the same place as his prized Murrow desk: in storage.
*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.