Following Suspension, Brian Williams Probably Wishes He’d Gotten the Tonight Show Job He Wanted

Brian Williams and current host Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show January 16, 2015. Photo: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

Forty seven minutes after the Nightly News — without Brian Williams — ended its broadcast tonight, NBC News president Deborah Turness issued the verdict on the embattled anchor’s fate: Williams is being suspended for six months without pay. The announcement capped a chaotic week for Williams. Earlier this morning, Williams and his agent met with NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke and were presented with a dossier of Williams’s apparent lies, according to sources. At 30 Rock, Comcast executives huddled in emergency meetings throughout the day. Williams himself was only slowly grasping the depths of the mess he’d created. “He’s in denial,” a source said.

One can only imagine that Williams was wishing his anchor escape plan had worked out and that he was the host of The Tonight Show right now. According to two NBC insiders, when the network decided to move on from Jay Leno a few years ago, Williams lobbied NBC executives to give him the host’s chair. “Brian wants to be a late-night comedian,” one former colleague explained. “He traded on being Nightly News anchorman-war-reporter to ingratiate himself with Jimmy, Lorne Michaels, and Jon Stewart.”

Now, of course, he’s become the subject of jokes rather than the one telling them. The meeting with Burke was part of NBC’s effort to resolve the metastasizing crisis. According to sources, the network was considering a range of options that involved cutting him loose, a lengthy suspension, or a detailed on-air mea culpa. One high-placed source told me this afternoon, correctly, that Williams was likely to face a “severe punishment” but will hang on. Indeed, Burke called Williams’s fictions “inexcusable” and the punishment “severe.” Williams’s lawyer, Bob Barnett, did not return a call or email seeking comment.

While the speed of Williams’s crash has stunned NBC staffers — “the cannibalism that’s going on here is so ferocious,” one told me — many people inside NBC News knew about Williams’s tendency to exaggerate the now-infamous helicopter ride in Iraq. “He was never a field reporter. He was incredibly insecure about it,” one former NBC News staffer said, speculating about why the anchor felt the need to exaggerate.

As word of Williams’s habit of embellishing spread through the network over the last decade, powerful voices tried to stop him. According to sources, former NBC News president Steve Capus and Tom Brokaw implored Williams to stick to the facts. “A lot of people, including Tom Brokaw, all said, ‘Let’s be careful here,’” one person with knowledge of the conversations told me. Capus left NBC in February 2013. One month later, Williams made his pivotal appearance on David Letterman’s show, where he revived the now-discredited Iraq story. “This is similar to Dan Rather in the ’80s,” one former NBC executive told me. “There’s no checks and balances. Brian has so much power.” Williams’s embattled boss, Deborah Turness, has struggled to gain control of the news division.

Some colleagues said Williams seems to have changed in recent years as his fame grew. “You can’t escape Brian Williams. He’s showing up in prime time,” another former colleague says. “He’s hosting SNL, his daughter is Peter Pan, she’s on HBO.”

This likely won’t be the end of Williams’s troubles. The network announced today that Richard Esposito, the senior producer conducting the fact-checking investigation of Williams’s statements, will continue his inquiry. The fact that NBC lawyers are said to be reviewing the list of Williams’s fictions is an ominous sign. Another source told me today that NBC has widened their probe to include Williams’s expense accounts. In the meantime, NBC executives will be poring over Lester Holt’s ratings data to gauge his strength as a possible full-time replacement.

But for now, NBC is reluctant to drop Williams. This is clearly a business calculation: Williams has been the face of the news division since replacing Tom Brokaw in 2004. In December 2014, NBC signed him to a reported five-year, $50 million deal. “He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him,” Burke said in his statement. “Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.” But NBC News staffers are said to be angry at the decision, which many feel is a slap on the wrist. Some wonder how he can ever return. “How does he ever sit down with Rand Paul or Chris Christie and say, ‘You said this two years ago, and you said this last week.’” one longtime staffer told me. “How does he do that?”

This post has been updated throughout.

Williams Wishes He Were Tonight Show Host