NEW YORK (AP) — In handing Brian Williams a six-month suspension for misleading viewers, NBC Universal chief Steve Burke says his chief anchor deserves a second chance. Whether he actually gets one is an open question.
Time is renowned for its healing powers but in this case, time also offers reasons for the split to become permanent. NBC Universal bought time with the suspension, hoping to remove an unflattering spotlight on its most prominent personality after he falsely reported flying in a helicopter hit by an enemy grenade in the Iraq War.
Veteran Lester Holt will fill in. With "Nightly News" atop the ratings for almost all of Williams' decade-long tenure as its lead anchor — and back into the 1990s with Tom Brokaw — Holt will be watched closely to see if he can maintain that lead. If he can, that may lessen NBC's desire to bring back a more costly anchor with doubts cast on his trustworthiness.
ABC in the past year maintained and even improved its "World News Tonight" ratings after replacing well-known anchor Diane Sawyer with David Muir. That indicates viewers care more about the content of the broadcasts than its anchors, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who monitors the evening newscasts.
"Not only is (Williams) dispensable, the business model is wrong," he said.
Even with the suspension, NBC has kept open its investigation into Williams' tendency to embellish stories of his work experiences. NBC News President Deborah Turness said that NBC Universal's general counsel has joined investigative editor Richard Esposito in the probe.
Some critics believe Williams is already so ethically compromised that it would be difficult for him to work an election campaign, whether viewers would accept him asking a presidential candidate, for example, to account for conflicting statements on an issue.
"The suspension so wounds him," said Frank Sesno, a George Washington University professor and former CNN Washington bureau chief. "If the offense is sufficiently severe to warrant a six-month suspension, how does one recover stature and credibility?"
Williams has declined to comment on his suspension, and the head-spinning aspect of his fall from grace may have precluded him from thinking about his future. He may decide he doesn't want to continue in his present role, or at NBC, with the six months offering him and NBC Universal a chance to negotiate a settlement.
Williams' hiring as chief anchor predates Comcast's takeover of NBC Universal, which would leave some question about the loyalty of its executives toward him. Embarrassing headlines about NBC News also aren't welcome at a time Comcast Corp. is still seeking federal approval of its purchase of Time Warner Cable.
With all these caveats, and the strong words of Williams' bosses about his wrongdoing, a clear pathway back was publicly offered.
"I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues," Burke said. "He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone's trust."
Comeback stories are popular, as are stories about the downfall of powerful people. Williams' explanation of misremembering some facts ignited online ridicule of him. A more humble apology, admitting he fudged a story to make himself look good, may strike viewers as more believable.
NBC's handling of the apology, and Saturday's curious announcement from Williams that he was taking himself off the broadcast — as opposed to his bosses ordering him to — has also cast negative attention on NBC News management.
Turness has had a rough run as NBC News president: the "Today" show has shown little progress chasing "Good Morning America," and was embarrassed by the quick hiring and firing of an executive who created backstage turmoil; medical correspondent Nancy Snyderman angered the public by violating a quarantine for Ebola exposure proved ; "Meet the Press" has sunk in the ratings and David Gregory's exit as moderator played out uncomfortably in public, and now Williams, who had been the network's bright spot.
Not all are her fault, yet managers of losing teams get only so many chances.
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder