NBC News Execs Divided on Brian Williams’s Fate

NBC News’s senior executives are deeply divided about the fate of Brian Williams, the Nightly News anchor currently on leave for telling tall tales about his time in Iraq and, potentially, in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. 

At a meeting over the weekend at the New York City home of NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke, network executives huddled to decide Williams’s fate, but they emerged with little agreement on a path forward. The division is reflective of the broader disarray within NBC News. 

With respect to Williams, one camp believes that, in the words of a source with knowledge of the situation, “Brian is cooked. Done. Has lost his credibility as an anchor and must go. The only question is who goes down with him.”

The members of this camp have drawn out two potential succession plans, one in which Lester Holt steps into the anchor spot full-time — Holt is subbing for Williams while the latter is on leave — and the other in which Williams’s predecessor, Tom Brokaw, steps in on an interim basis until Today show host Matt Lauer can assume the position. Both pose risks: the former because Holt rates poorly and there is little hope that he could put up the ratings numbers that have made NBC’s Nightly News the top-rated newscast, the latter because yanking Lauer from the Today show, a big money maker for the network, threatens its success at a time when it has already faced enormous challenges after falling behind Good Morning America in the wake of Ann Curry’s controversial departure. 

The other camp, led by NBC News president Deborah Turness and her boss, Pat Fili-Krushel, the chairwoman of the NBC Universal news group, wants to bring Williams back to Rock Center and return him to the anchor desk. They are, in the words of the insider, “desperate to save their jobs and can’t let the Nightly News go to No. 2″ in the ratings. In an ominous report on Friday titled “The Decline and Fall of NBC News,” Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote that that knives are out for Fili-Krushel, who has overseen the decline of NBC News and who hired Turness a year into her tenure as chief of the news group. So, with Today and Meet the Press ousted from their positions atop the ratings, Fili-Krushel and Turness are determined to preserve Williams and, by extension, NBC’s last big No. 1 show. 

In the end, I’m told, the Williams brouhaha is likely to be mediated by Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, NBC News’s parent company, and that he is likely to seek Brokaw’s counsel. (See Mike Allen’s report on Brokaw’s outsize influence at the network.) Brokaw has said matter-of-factly that Williams’s fate is ”up to Brian [Roberts] and NBC News executives.” That may be true, but it doesn’t mean he’s not whispering in their ears.