Rolling Stone's 'A Rape on Campus.' Notes and comment on Columbia J-school's investigation. >> Pressthink
Mon, 06 Apr 2015 14:59
The key decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative '-- indifference to campus rape '-- and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.First, some key links:
Here's the text itself: Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report: An anatomy of a journalistic failure.
The author's apology: Statement From Writer of Rolling Stone Rape Article, Sabrina Erdely.
CJR: Interview with Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, lead authors of the Columbia report.
New York Times account: Rolling Stone Article on Rape at University of Virginia Failed All Basics, Report Says
Huffington Post's summary. Rolling Stone's UVA Rape Story Was A 'Journalistic Failure' That Could've Been Avoided, Columbia Finds
Poynter.org, The journalism community reacts to the review of 'A Rape On Campus'
Second, a few disclaimers:
The authors, Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs, and Derek Kravitz, a postgraduate research scholar at Columbia, took this on voluntarily. Rolling Stone did not pay them. They did it as a public service and a gift to the profession of journalism. They did it because they thought it was important. As a journalism professor, I am grateful to them for this work. Thank you!
I teach in a competing program at NYU. Factor that in as you evaluate what I have to say, some of which is critical.
Overall, I think the report is impressively reported and soundly reasoned. It's a hugely valuable record from which journalists and students of journalism will draw lessons for years. I wish we had studies just like it for other big screw-ups, like this one.
My notes and commentary:
1. Asking ''how could this happen?'' is not the same as asking, ''what could have prevented it?'' The authors chose to focus their study on prevention '-- steps not taken that would have avoided disaster '-- rather than tracing those mistakes to their origins, which might include, for example, bad ideas or rotten assumptions. It's a defensible decision, but it does have consequences. These ripple through the report.
2. This is an amazing passage:
Rolling Stone's senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story's failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. ''It's not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don't think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,'' Dana said. ''We just have to do what we've always done and just make sure we don't make this mistake again.'' Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, ''I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.''
It's amazing because it leaves Rolling Stone editors with a tautological explanation. How could we have screwed up so badly? Because this time we screwed up really badly. The way to prevent another mistake like this is to make sure we don't make this mistake again. A remarkable conclusion, considering the stakes. To their credit, the authors of the report don't buy this one bit.
3. ''The editors invested Rolling Stone's reputation in a single source,'' says the report. I think they're right. Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, says they're wrong:
Mr. Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report's assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. ''I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,'' he said.
The point is not that your reputation accumulated over time rests on one story, but that one story at the wrong time can ruin it. I'd want my managing editor to understand that. Wouldn't you?
4. ''In hindsight,'' the report says, ''the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine's editors to change plans.'' What the authors mean is not ''most consequential decision.'' They mean ''easiest route to preventing disaster.'' You were so close! Contact the friends and the story falls apart. That's what they mean.
5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term is emblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it's not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the ''emblem of'...'' problem.
6. Not that it's entirely missing. The basic facts are there:
Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show ''what it's like to be on campus now '... where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,'' according to Erdely's notes of the conversation.
Idea: Maybe ''a single, emblematic college rape case'' does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that's the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.
7. This is from Paul Farhi's Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:
So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls ''super-smart kids'' and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.
None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of ''feel'' is this? It's feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior '-- given '-- narrative.
8. ''Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,'' read Ravi Somaiya's Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There's the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn't start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.
9. This is from Erik Wemple's Dec. 5 column for the Post:
Observe how Erdely responded to a question about the accused parties in Jackie's alleged gang rape. In that Slate podcast, when asked who these people were, she responded, ''I don't want to say much about them as individuals but I'll just say that this particular fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi '-- it's really emblematic in a lot of ways of sort of like elitist fraternity culture. It's considered to be a kind of top-tier fraternity at University of Virginia.
I don't want to say much about them as individuals. In fact, she didn't know anything about them ''as individuals'' and never located them '-- a major criticism in the report. Asked about contacting these people, she answers with their fitness as an emblem.
10. It is therefore striking that Erdely's public apology did not extend itself to Phi Kappa Psi. I think it should have.
11. The alternative to starting with a narrative and searching for a campus, a frat and a survivor's story that can serve as your emblem was pointed out by Reason magazine's Robby Soave: Start with a proven case: two former Vanderbilt University football players convicted of gang raping a female student during a night of drinking and drug use. Dig in on that. Then find another and dig in on that. It's true that ''you always try to contact the accused'' is very, very basic to good journalism. But let your reporting drive the narrative, rather than the other way around'-- this is also very basic. Yet it doesn't get framed that way (as a basic error) in the report.
12. Sometimes the Rolling Stone journalists quoted in the Columbia report appear to be saying this was ''Jackie's story.'' It was told from Jackie's point of view, they say. Because it was so powerful, because they found her credible. Then at other times they give the impression that it was not about Jackie at all. It's about the culture of indifference that greets women who try to report rape on college campuses. They could have dropped Jackie and told many other stories, Will Dana says in the report. This is Erdely responding to the Post's nagging questions in December:
''I could address many of [the questions] individually'... but by dwelling on this, you're getting sidetracked,'' she wrote in an e-mail response to The Post's inquiry. ''As I've already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie '-- a person whom I found to be credible '-- told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way '-- i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.''
This was Jackie's story. No, it's about the culture of indifference. How can both be true? If she's the perfect emblem then both are true. This is the belief that overtook the Rolling Stone staff. But what made them vulnerable to that belief?
13. ''Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,'' says deputy managing editor Sean Woods in the report. This is Rolling Stone's Maginot Line. ''We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.''
Erdely added: ''If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can't think of many things that we would have been able to do differently'... Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.'' Erdely's reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie's.
Indeed. None was.
14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the ''emblem of'...'' problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it's said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don't. You ''have'' credibility or you don't. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn't occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.
A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hannah Rosin's incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie's lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author's reply: ''I found her story to be very'-- I found her to be very credible.''
15. It's almost like, if you have credibility you don't need proof. That's an absurd statement, of course, but here's how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie's story to earn the skeptical user's belief? you say: I'm a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voil ! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who ''has'' more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn't that ''give'' it credibility too?
16. Bit by bit the readers get eclipsed from this view. Don't take our word for it, see for yourself: that logic gets eclipsed too. (Don't take her word for it, listen to Jackie's friends talk about the attacks. Rolling Stone dispensed with that.) In fact, credibility isn't like charisma, which you have or don't. It's a transaction between journalists and readers. Readers have to trust, yes, but journalists have to realize that they cannot put too great a strain on the reader's trust. 'A Rape on Campus'' did that, repeatedly. But the journalists involved didn't realize what they were doing. Why not?
I wish the Columbia report, as good as it is, told us more than it does about that. ''How could this happen?'' is harder to answer than ''what would have prevented it?'' But this was our best chance to find out.
(I reserve the right to add to these notes on Monday'....)
Inside the Brian Williams Scandal at NBC News | Vanity Fair
Thu, 09 Apr 2015 01:14
Pat Fili-Krushel, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Andy Lack, Deborah Turness, and Steve Burke.
Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photographs by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images (Logo), Natan Dvir/Polaris (Background), Jennifer Graylock/SIPA USA (Fili-Krushel), Gary He/Insider Images/Polaris (Burke), Matt Rourke/A.P. Images (Brokaw), David Sandison/The Independent/Rex USA (Turness), Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images (Lack), Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage (Williams).
Brian Williams's fabrication was just the latest, and worst, of the debacles that have plagued NBC News since NBCUniversal was bought by Comcast in 2011. Who is to blame?
On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 4, the beleaguered head of NBC News, 47-year-old Deborah Turness, dropped into a chair in her boss's office on the third floor of the network's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters. Her boss, Patricia ''Pat'' Fili-Krushel, oversaw NBC News as well as its cable cousins, CNBC and MSNBC. The two women, both sharp and stylish, were close; Fili, 61, had hired the British-born Turness from a London network 20 months earlier.
It had been a tumultuous period for NBC's news division, as had the entire four years since the Philadelphia cable/phone/Internet giant, Comcast, took over NBCUniversal, as the company is officially known. There was Ann Curry's tearful flameout on Today; David Gregory's long slide to his exit from Meet the Press; the strange firing after less than three months on the job of Jamie Horowitz, an ESPN executive brought in to fix Today; not to mention ratings declines at several of the division's centerpiece shows, including Today and Meet the Press.
But that afternoon, after a long presentation to 200 NBC advertising salespeople, Turness was feeling better than she had in months. When she had been hired she knew she was stepping onto a troubled ship; finally, she felt, the organizational changes she had made were showing results. Meet the Press's ratings were edging up; Nightly News seemed to be stabilizing. ''Things,'' she told Fili, ''feel like they're in a really good place.''
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Her sense of relief, however, lasted mere minutes. As she left Fili's office around 3:30, Turness learned the startling news: the most important person at the network, the face of NBC News, its anchorman Brian Williams, had apparently been exaggerating an anecdote about coming under fire in a U.S. Army helicopter during the Iraq war in 2003. A reporter from the military newspaper Stars and Stripes had called about it that morning. Williams was supposed to talk to him off the record in an effort to determine what the reporter planned to write. Instead, to the dismay of NBC's P.R. staff, Williams had gone on the record and admitted he hadn't been telling the truth, not only on a Nightly News broadcast the previous week but also over the years at public appearances and on talk shows.
Stunned, Turness was still trying to grasp the gravity of the situation when the Stars and Stripes story went online. At that point her biggest concern was the apology Williams was preparing to read to viewers on his broadcast that evening. He was already taping segments as he and Turness began swapping e-mails on its all-important wording. Turness and the other executives who had gotten involved quickly became frustrated, as they would remain for days, with Williams's inability to explain himself. ''He couldn't say the words 'I lied,' '' recalls one NBC insider. ''We could not force his mouth to form the words 'I lied.' He couldn't explain what had happened. [He said,] 'Did something happen to [my] head? Maybe I had a brain tumor, or something in my head?' He just didn't know. We just didn't know. We had no clear sense what had happened. We got the best [apology] we could get.''
And that was a problem. Because the apology Williams read on the air that evening not only failed to limit the damage to his reputation, and to NBC News, its elliptical wording'--''I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago'''--made a bad situation worse, inflaming a crisis that led a week later to Williams's suspension for six months. In early March, Pat Fili became the scandal's second victim, pushed aside to make room for a former NBC News chief, Andrew Lack, whose return, network executives fervently hope, will restore morale and bring some much-needed stability to a news division that desperately needs it. Williams's stunning fall was only the worst of a string of embarrassing episodes that have brought NBC News, long one of the gold standards of television news, to its knees.
Since Comcast took control of NBC, the network's news division'--famously termed Comcast's ''crown jewel'' by C.E.O. Brian Roberts'--has endured one debacle after another. ''When Comcast took over, they had the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 Sunday show, and the No. 1 evening broadcast,'' says a former top NBC executive. ''That's all completely fallen apart. I don't know how you blame anyone but Comcast and the people it brought in. It's been a nightmare.''
Behind the scenes much of the blame has been laid at the feet of three executives: Turness, a British-trained newcomer to U.S. television; Fili, who had virtually no experience in journalism; and Fili's boss, the steely, driven C.E.O. Comcast installed to run NBCUniversal, Steve Burke. Under Burke the network has done well overall'--its ratings have rebounded from last to first in the coveted 18''49 demographic, and NBCUniversal's profits were up 18 percent last year'--but he and his deputies, their critics charge, time and again proved unable to rein in the news division's high-priced talent. ''News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn't have a fucking clue,'' says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. ''She's letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they'll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.''
''Look. Deborah Turness: I have seen no evidence she knows what she's doing, but in fairness, she walked into a complete shitstorm there,'' says a former top NBC executive. ''Today is a horror show. Brian Williams? He didn't give a rat's ass what Deborah Turness says. But this is fundamentally not a Deborah Turness problem. She's just a symptom of the problem'.... This is a Comcast problem.''
Even some of Burke's defenders admit he has only himself to blame for the decline of NBC News. ''Steve has a great track record, and phenomenal DNA, but nobody bats a thousand,'' insists one Burke fan. ''He's done a phenomenal job in so many areas. What he did easing out Leno? Unbelievable. But what you're looking at here is his mistake. Just a huge mistake. I mean, bringing in Pat? Then Deborah? That's like bad food and small portions.''
Officially, in a damage-control mode where almost no one will be interviewed freely and on the record, NBC News declined comment for this article. Unofficially, its loyalists cooperated extensively. While admitting the occasional misstep, they reject the harsh critiques that have trailed in the wake of the Williams scandal, blaming them on a coterie of departed executives, including former NBCUniversal C.E.O. Jeff Zucker and former NBC News chief Steve Capus, who resigned under pressure in 2013. ''We know the people saying these things about us, and we know why,'' one NBC partisan told me. ''Because five years later we are still cleaning up the mess they left behind.''
The Place to BeThe long and storied history of NBC News can be traced from the first nightly television newscast in America, in 1940, through pioneering programs on civil rights to the 1960s-era rise of anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. But Huntley's retirement, in 1970, ushered in a period of lower ratings, and even lower budgets, as the news division suffered a 20-year decline. Ironically, it was perhaps the worst scandal in NBC's history that laid the groundwork for its incredible turnaround.
David Gregory, Steve Capus, and Jeff Zucker.
Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photographs by Richard Drew/A.P. Images (Background), William B. Plowman/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images (Gregory), Charles Sykes/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images (Capus), Susan Walsh/A.P. Images (Zucker).
In November 1992, NBC's newsmagazine show Dateline aired an hour-long segment purporting to show that the gas tanks on certain kinds of General Motors pickup trucks tended to explode on even low-speed impacts. G.M. responded with an investigation of its own that showed that Dateline had rigged the dramatic explosion that was the program's climax by affixing model-rocket engines to a truck's underbody. In the ensuing scandal three Dateline producers were fired and the president of NBC News at the time, Michael Gartner, was forced to resign. Morale hit rock bottom; one NBC executive told The New York Times, ''Some of us feel this place is like Mogadishu before the Marines landed.''
What followed was a housecleaning that allowed a host of young executives and newspeople to come to the fore and, in doing so, set the stage for what would become a kind of golden age for NBC News. All this was overseen by Gartner's replacement, a longtime CBS producer named Andy Lack, who had a sharp eye for talent and the confidence to let the young egos of his producers run free. (Note: Lack's wife, Betsy Kenny Lack, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. She recused herself from editorial input for this article.) Shortly before Lack came in, a new producer, Neal Shapiro, had taken over Dateline, and under Lack he made it a consistent winner in its time slot. A year earlier, Tim Russert, who'd once served as chief of staff to Senator Pat Moynihan, was given control of the lackluster Meet the Press and turned it into a topical ratings engine and news powerhouse. Most important was the turnaround a twentysomething impresario named Jeff Zucker was able to engineer at the news division's profit center, Today, which in a good year could generate more than $100 million in profit for NBC's then corporate parent, General Electric. After the controversial replacement of Jane Pauley in 1989, Today had fallen into second place, behind Good Morning America. Under Zucker, Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric took it back to No. 1 in 1995, a position it would maintain for the next 17 years, despite the eventual need to transition to new anchors such as Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer.
''Andy Lack's genius was he gave Jeff and Tim and Neal Shapiro the freedom to run,'' says a former NBC News executive who worked closely with everyone involved. ''Over the next 15 years NBC News really became the envy of the broadcast world. Today, Nightly, Meet the Press: they were all No. 1 [in their categories]. And they really did help set the agenda for the national discussion.''
After Lack's departure, to Sony Music Entertainment in 2003, Zucker eventually ascended to take control of NBCUniversal, a position he still held in 2009, when the financial crisis prompted General Electric to streamline its far-flung businesses, a strategy that included selling NBCUniversal to Comcast. NBC News executives had been close to G.E. executives, including C.E.O. Jack Welch, but they soon developed a strong sense that Comcast's top executives, Brian Roberts and Steve Burke, didn't value the art of talent management quite so highly.
''I always thought they lacked an appreciation for dealing with talent,'' says a former NBC executive who worked with Comcast executives during the transition. ''Remember: They come from a cable utility company, where all you do is keep your customers happy and collect the bills at the end of the month. To be honest, you got the sense they couldn't fathom why NBC worried so much about the talent; you know, 'Why are these people worrying so much about what Matt Lauer thinks?' ''
''They didn't believe in talent management,'' says another former executive who worked with Comcast executives. ''I'm telling you '... they just didn't believe that mattered.''
Murmurs that Comcast executives wouldn't genuflect before the NBC News stars were widespread as Steve Burke took control of NBCUniversal in the first weeks of 2011. Burke, the son of the legendary Capital Cities C.E.O. Daniel Burke, was viewed as a highly capable, no-nonsense type who wouldn't be easily swayed by the glamour of television news. ''Just look at Steve Burke's eyes,'' says one NBC executive who worked closely with him. ''He is a cold, calculating guy.''
''Burke actually started out O.K.,'' this executive goes on. ''Matt [Lauer], within a matter of weeks [of Burke's coming], said he did not want to renew his contract. And to Burke's great credit, he built enough of a relationship then with Lauer that Lauer began to feel he could be trusted. And when Burke agreed to his enormous demands, north of $20 million a year, he kept Matt.''
According to one view, the Burke administration's troubles at NBC News can be traced to the Ann Curry episode at Today, a messy situation it inherited from the Zucker regime. Line executives were sharply split over Curry's desire to ascend from newsreader to Lauer's on-air partner. The head of news, Steve Capus, was in favor; Today's executive producer, Jim Bell, and Matt Lauer were wary. Capus prevailed, only to watch Curry's ratings slide. By June 2012, when she memorably and tearfully announced her departure from Today, Capus and Bell were not speaking. ''That's where this whole thing begins to fall apart,'' says the onetime executive. ''Burke was the principal player [who made the decision to demote her], though he hid desperately behind this. Finally he makes a deal for her to go away and then gets cold feet about pushing her to announce it. Despite pleas from everyone, Burke would not push the situation. He just felt uncomfortable doing it, and he wouldn't explain why. Which leads directly to this thing being a national 'Oh, poor Ann Curry' story, which was the furthest thing from the truth.''
The Curry saga convinced Burke that the news division under Steve Capus's direction was broadly dysfunctional. ''The prevailing line from the Comcast people when Steve Capus was in charge was all News needs is a real grown-up in there,'' says a top NBC executive at the time. ''You know, 'These people don't know how to run a business. What they need is organization. Change the structure, business development, better H.R., get some women in there.' I mean, that's verbatim. That was the script.'' Bell was removed from the equation when Burke gave him the Olympics to supervise, but Burke wanted deeper changes. Insiders believe he found the Curry episode so distasteful that he resolved to distance himself from the details of talent management altogether. ''This thing exploded into a soap opera, and let me tell you, it scared the hell out of Steve Burke,'' recalls an executive who met with Burke regularly. ''And that's not a phrase you use about a tough guy like Burke. But I saw it.''
It was then that Burke initiated a corporate reorganization that laid the groundwork for the many problems that followed. In July 2012, Comcast announced NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC were to be combined into an enlarged news division that, to the surprise of many staffers, would be run by Burke's trusted deputy, Patricia Fili-Krushel. ''Burke didn't want to deal with the details of handling talent,'' says another former top NBC executive. ''And he didn't want to deal with MSNBC and CNBC either. So he takes care of everything in one fell swoop. He creates this new news group, throws in MSNBC and CNBC, and gives it all to Pat to run. Problem solved. One group, you know, actually not a bad idea. Putting Pat in charge? Terrible idea.''
Today, in the wake of the Williams fiasco, Pat Fili has emerged as a popular punching bag inside NBC. Fili started her career at ABC as a secretary ''back when they still called them secretaries,'' as one of her friends puts it, during the 1970s; one of her first bosses was Bob Iger, now the heralded chairman of Disney. It was Iger, then a production supervisor, who insisted to his superiors that Fili take his job when he was promoted. (He remains a mentor to her.) ''The thing that most impressed me about Pat is that, in addition to being smart, tough, and knowledgeable, she is an adult,'' says Dick Parsons, former chairman and C.E.O. of Time Warner. ''She always parked her ego at the door and gave her full focus and attention to solving the problem at hand.'' In the ensuing years she climbed the ladder at the network, becoming head of ABC Daytime during the 1990s. It was there that she met Burke, who 15 years later, when he got to NBC, hired her away from Time Warner, where she was supervising human resources, among other areas. That is essentially what Burke initially assigned her to do at NBC. When he named her to oversee news, the one glaring omission on her impressive r(C)sum(C) was anything to do with journalism.
''Pat's a very nice person, smart, very empathetic, but she's in way over her head,'' an admirer told me in February. ''She knows nothing about any of the things she is managing [at NBC].''
''You have to understand something about Comcast,'' says another recently departed NBC executive. ''There's practically no attention paid to actual domain expertise'--like, zero. The fact of the matter is, in certain businesses, certain things matter. If you're going to be made the head of a shoe business, you need to actually know that shoes need to be sourced and designed. In the big corporate vision of NBCU, there's almost no regard for that line of thinking. If you fit into a mold, if you fulfill a loyalty obligation or a don't-make-waves obligation, or if you can just be pegged into the Comcast pegboard, you get to be in charge of stuff. That's Pat.''
By all accounts Steve Capus was less than thrilled to find himself reporting to Fili. When he resigned, six months later, news reports made it sound as if he had been fed up. In fact, NBC partisans say, Capus was pressured to leave, in part because Fili felt he was feuding with just about everyone else who reported to her. But there was another reason for Capus's exit, these insiders say. Though Capus had worked closely with Brian Williams for 15 years, it turns out the anchorman also had a role in his leaving.
War StoriesOne might expect that, in the wake of Williams's suspension, his colleagues would be brimming with stories of other fanciful tales he told. That's not the case. There are a few tales, it's true, but when asked for the unvarnished truth about Williams, the two topics people at NBC News return to again and again are these: his prowess as a bureaucratic infighter and his limited interest in the kind of ''heavy'' news topics and investigative pieces that had long been championed by such NBC stalwarts as Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.
''What always bothered Tim was Brian's lack of interest in things that mattered most, that were front and center, like politics and world events,'' says a person who knew both men well. ''Brian has very little interest in politics. It's not in his blood. What Brian cares about is logistics, the weather, and planes and trains and helicopters.''
''You know what interested Brian about politics?'' marvels one longtime NBC correspondent, recently departed. ''Brian was obsessed with whether Mitt Romney wore the Mormon underwear.'' (A supporter says that this characterization is unfair and that Williams reads deeply and broadly, especially about history and politics.)
Williams took the anchor chair in December 2004, after a career handling the news at local stations and MSNBC; though he had worked as NBC's chief White House correspondent for two years, he was never a foreign or war correspondent. He was deeply insecure about this, some of his friends believe. These people suggest that his storied broadcasts from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which proved a boon to his ratings, were in part an effort to overcome the perception that he was a journalistic lightweight. In his first years on Nightly News, several colleagues say, Williams's weaknesses were kept in check by other strong figures at the network, from Brokaw and Russert to Capus and a Nightly News executive producer named John Reiss. With the departures of each of these men, especially Russert, who died in 2008, Williams slowly consolidated his power.
'There is NBC News before Tim died and after Tim died,'' says the recently departed correspondent. ''Tim was our soul, our conscience'.... When Tim died, and Brian pushed out John Reiss, there was no one who could influence Brian in a significant way, who could say, 'Goddammit, Brian, you have to do this.' ''
In the years that followed, NBC's two best-known investigative correspondents, Michael Isikoff and Lisa Myers, both left the network, in large part, insiders say, because Williams had little interest in their work. ''By 2007, 2008, Brian was starting to feel his oats a bit,'' says a onetime NBC executive who knows him well. ''It was a bit of a challenge, not huge. Manageable. He was more reluctant to go on difficult assignments. He didn't want to leave New York. Getting him to war zones was real tough '... but when he did go, he came back with these great stories that kind of put himself at the center of things. Then the Comcast crew arrived and everything began to change.''
The venue where several top NBC executives witnessed Williams's efforts at corporate politics firsthand was the 51st-floor executive dining room, which Burke had spruced up and encouraged them to use.
''If Brian could've eaten there eight days a week he would've,'' says another onetime NBC executive. ''He would hold court at some table, with some poor mid-level schmo who didn't know what was going on, and he always seemed to be there when Steve Burke would come in. And [with Burke in earshot], he would make a point of taking someone down a notch. It could be Pat or Steve [Capus] or [P.R. chief] Adam [Miller] or someone else, but over time it got to be Steve Capus a lot. Brian took Steve down. I heard those lunches. I know what he said. He got Burke and Pat Fili very riled up about Steve.''
Capus had a number of issues, including a combative streak and a temper. But those who watched Williams in action think he ''very quickly came to believe that he was the person running the news division, not Capus,'' says one of the former NBC executives quoted above. ''As Capus was kind of dissed more and more to and by Burke and, ultimately, Pat Fili, Brian just saw that as an opportunity to run a truck through the news division and get whatever he wanted. Suddenly he's appearing on all these shows, Jimmy Fallon and 30 Rock and everything else. This spread the idea in Brian's mind that he was this kind of newsman-entertainer. That he was a national raconteur.''
Entertainment NewsFor a while, he was. In fact, as an excellent article by Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine recounted, Williams had long displayed an ambivalence with continuing in the anchor chair. With his abundant charisma and disarming wit, what he truly wanted, it appears, was his own talk show. According to New York, he talked to Steve Burke about succeeding Jay Leno. When Burke refused, Williams reportedly pitched Les Moonves, at CBS, to replace David Letterman, who was soon to retire. Moonves also allegedly declined. Though his appearances on shows such as 30 Rock and Jimmy Fallon successfully repositioned Williams as a good-humored Everyman'--and thus expanded not only his own brand but that of Nightly News'--they were not popular among many of his colleagues.
''He goes on Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon and all that, that's where his heart was, and [at NBC] that's seen as running away from the news division,'' says a former NBC executive.
A Williams partisan disagrees. ''The irony is that the very things people are criticizing Brian for now were the things they loved most about him at the time, the fact that by going on all these shows, with their young audiences, he was building bridges to the younger people who weren't watching network news anymore,'' this person says. ''It was something the previous generation of anchormen, like Brokaw, hadn't been able to do. Brian was doing it.''
After refusing Williams the Leno spot, Steve Burke offered him a consolation prize: his own magazine show, Rock Center, a bid to anchor what he hoped would be the second coming of 60 Minutes. It wasn't. Rock Center debuted in 2011 to tepid reviews and worse ratings. Its journalistic efforts received less notice than its stunt hiring of Chelsea Clinton, whose signature contribution was the interview she did with the Geico Gecko that appeared on the show's Web site.
Rock Center's death came three months after Steve Capus finally resigned under pressure from Pat Fili, in February 2013. (Capus is now executive editor of CBS News.) With Capus gone, however, it was not Williams but Fili who snapped up an opportunity to place her own stamp on NBC News. She launched an ambitious international search for a replacement for Capus. ''I hadn't heard of Deb Turness, but what I heard I liked,'' says a former NBC executive. ''What I heard over and over again was: this is a classic Pat Fili hire, a very expensive, not very protracted global search, with a stellar candidate who nobody has really worked with here, and good for Pat'--she found a great woman, a highly qualified non-white male. Good for Pat. It was bulletproof.''
Or, as it happened, not.
Deborah Turness is a feisty, hard-charging, tabloid-loving British media figure. When Fili came calling, she was the top editor at ITV News in London, where the news programs she supervised consistently humbled rivals at the BBC. A hip, sinewy blonde, she had once been married to a roadie for the Clash and had competed in a Beijing-to-Paris road race. The**New York Times quoted a former colleague, who said she brought ''a bit of rock-chick swagger to a newsroom full of middle-aged men.'' The early reviews, at least publicly, were glowing. Williams called her a ''dynamo.'' NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell says, ''Deborah is very creative, very competitive, and very ambitious in the best sense of the word. I think it's been an impressive retooling.''
Behind the scenes, things weren't going as smoothly. Even NBC loyalists acknowledge that Turness's introduction to the realities of U.S. broadcast news was rocky. ''One thing she didn't really know about was talent management,'' admits an executive who admires Turness. ''I remember early on I asked her how many journalists she had supervised [in London] who made a million dollars a year. She said one. And she didn't understand that you communicate [with the talent] through their agents. Like if [WME co-C.E.O.] Ari Emanuel calls, you have to phone back the same day. So I remember we had to kind of calm Ari down. Once all that was worked out, she caught on fairly quickly.''
Ann Curry, Matt Lauer, and Jamie Horowitz.
Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photographs by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images (Horowitz), Peter Kramer/NBC/NewsWire/Getty Images (Background), Robert Pitts/Landov (Lauer), Anna Webber/WireImage (Curry).
''It was almost unfair to give Deborah this job,'' says one NBC observer. ''She was basically overmatched. From day one, it was difficult, even just managing the daily job. Because it's a big job, it's got a lot of intricate parts to it, and you know she had a rough time with it. She was not terribly accessible. People came out of meetings and said she's overwhelmed.'' One NBC insider terms Turness's early performance ''a hot mess.'' Another adds, ''She was trying to do so much; she was all over the place, like she had A.D.D., and that caused a lot of stress for everyone.''
Turness's presentations were a model of 21st-century media and corporate jargon and synergies. Like Fili an ardent believer in market research, she tasked all her shows with drafting mission statements, ''content plans,'' and ''brand filters,'' which, along with an emphasis on finding ways to ''monetize'' news programming, prompted much eye-rolling among NBC's old-timers. In an effort to drag NBC into the Digital Age'--it has been a notable laggard'--Turness pushed for more digital content and far more cooperation among programs. This all sounds smart enough, but many in the news division didn't appreciate the perception they were behind the times, especially when Turness, in an interview with The New York Times, was quoted saying, ''People in the organization from top to bottom recognized that NBC News hadn't kept up with the times in all sorts of ways, for maybe 15 years. I think the organization had gone to sleep.'' Even Fili and others who backed Turness cringed at the quote, which angered many staffers. ''That didn't help,'' acknowledges one admirer. ''I do think that set her back.''
For all the digital chatter, though, Turness's top priority was stabilizing Today, whose ratings had gone into free fall as many viewers blamed Matt Lauer for the Ann Curry debacle. Turness spent her first six months focused on the show, and in time the ratings drop subsided, and Today settled in at No. 2, behind Good Morning America. At that point, last winter, she turned her attention to Meet the Press, whose ratings under David Gregory had fallen to a 20-year low. The show rarely broke news, and Gregory seemed uncomfortable in the host's chair. Turness led marathon strategy sessions in Washington, spitballing myriad ways to spice up the aging franchise, several of which were later lampooned in a long article in Washingtonian magazine. Among her ideas was bringing in a live audience or celebrity guests or even a band. ''If you could bring in Angelina Jolie to talk about an issue, or George Clooney on the Sudan, that could work,'' an NBC partisan says today. ''She wanted to play a South African song about Nelson Mandela over the credits when Mandela died. That's not crazy.''
As word of Turness's efforts to turn around Meet the Press spread, others at NBC, most notably the political savant Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, began jockeying to replace Gregory. By last spring blind items to this effect were appearing in so many gossip columns that Fili telephoned Todd's agent and told him to cut it out; the agent denied being involved. Once this all became public, it led to a perception among Turness's critics that she was letting Gregory twist in the wind. When she finally fired him, last summer, it was widely viewed as a mercy killing. ''What she did to David, that's just unforgivable,'' says one Gregory supporter. This criticism, however, misses a central point. By installing Chuck Todd in Gregory's place, Turness may have saved the show. In February, Meet the Press returned, briefly, to No. 1.
Morning SicknessBy then Turness had turned her focus back to Today. She and Fili, wanting some fresh eyes, decided to bring in an outsider to devise a turnaround strategy, a brash 38-year-old ESPN producer named Jamie Horowitz. Last May, in an internal memo announcing his hiring, Turness termed Horowitz ''a visionary leader,'' a bit of a stretch for a young executive known mostly for shepherding two ESPN shows: Keith Olbermann's ESPN2 program and a football show hosted by Colin Cowherd. Some felt Horowitz's hiring was a tacit admission that Turness wasn't up to the task of fixing Today herself. ''Come on!'' barks one critic. ''Anybody with a triple-digit I.Q. who interviews somebody to come in as president of NBC News you ask, 'What are you going to do with the 800-pound gorilla? With Today?' And Deborah's answer was 'You hire Jamie Horowitz!' It was almost like it was Deborah's cry for help. Like if you're overwhelmed and you don't have a lot of confidence or vision, you bring in other people: 'Help me, I'm drowning.' ''
After a protracted negotiation to break his contract at ESPN'--Pat Fili got Bob Iger (Disney owns ESPN) to intervene on NBC's behalf'--Horowitz wasn't allowed to formally start at NBC until December, though he could begin working off the premises in September.
There are two sharply different versions of Horowitz's brief tenure as an executive vice president of NBC News: One offering considerable detail is put forth by NBC partisans; this version paints Horowitz as a cocky, trash-talking loose cannon who avidly leaked to the press. An alternative version suggests that Horowitz was torpedoed by Matt Lauer and his allies at Today, who feared the changes he sought. The truth appears to contain elements of both versions.
As Fili told other executives, her initial inkling of trouble came during Horowitz's first week on the job, in a chat with Williams. As one insider describes it, ''Brian had dinner with Jamie '... [and] Brian says Jamie threw Deborah Turness under the bus on something. I think they were disagreeing on a promo, and Jamie said something like 'If you need help with Deborah, I can handle this for you.' So Pat calls Jamie, like right away, and says, 'So you threw Deborah under the bus with Brian?' And he doesn't even flinch. He denies it. The more Pat thought about it, the madder she got. She called him the next day and said, 'I don't know how it was at ESPN, but it doesn't work that way here. Here, we're a team.' And Jamie's words were 'Message received.' ''
In the following days, loyalists say, both Fili and Turness heard disquieting reports that Horowitz was openly speculating about changes on Today with outside agents and attorneys, generating corrosive rumors. Gossip items began to appear. Turness mentioned her concerns to Fili, who relayed her own to Steve Burke, but, for the moment, Horowitz was allowed to arrange focus groups to study how viewers felt about Today's on-air personalities. Nonetheless every week, the loyalists say, seemed to bring some new issue: Turness grew irked when Horowitz repeatedly refused to attend her daily planning meetings. He told her Matt Lauer was buying into many of his ideas, but when asked Lauer denied it, saying, ''The jury's still out.'' In October, roughly six weeks into Horowitz's tenure, Fili told Burke, according to one insider, ''We need to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with Jamie.''
For Turness, NBC partisans say, the final straw came after she and Lauer quietly secured a major interview for Today: the wife of N.F.L. running back Ray Rice, Janay Palmer, whom Rice had infamously punched in the face in an episode that ignited a national debate over spousal abuse. The ''get'' remained secret for several days, sources say, until Horowitz asked a Today producer about it. Hours later, news of the interview appeared on the TMZ sports Web site. In an e-mail, Turness told Horowitz she was ''very unhappy'' about the leak. According to an insider, Horowitz responded, ''I hope you don't think I leaked that.'' Turness replied: ''I don't know what to think.'' (A spokesman for Horowitz says he never leaked any NBC items to other media sources.)
The Rice incident convinced Turness she could no longer trust Horowitz. She told other executives she feared speaking openly in front of him, according to several insiders. This was the situation on Tuesday, November 11, NBC loyalists say, when Horowitz made his long-awaited six-hour presentation to Turness on the changes he envisioned at Today. Working with a white magnetic board, Horowitz urged a half-dozen personnel changes, including the dismissal of Willie Geist and Natalie Morales, grooming his old ESPN pal Josh Elliott to replace Lauer, and beefing up the role of Hoda Kotb, perhaps even having her replace Savannah Guthrie. Turness coolly agreed to take his views under advisement. The very next day the New York Post carried a blind item suggesting Turness was about to be fired. Among the candidates to replace her, it said, was Jamie Horowitz.
Turness had had enough. That Friday morning she summoned Horowitz to her office. ''I don't trust you,'' she told him. ''Nothing that you've proposed is ever going to happen if I don't trust you.'' When Horowitz asked what he could do, Turness replied, ''That's up to you.'' When Turness relayed news of the meeting to Fili, Fili scheduled her own meeting with Horowitz for Monday. But that meeting never happened. It was then, Horowitz's defenders argue, that Matt Lauer intervened to get Horowitz fired. ''That weekend is when Matt went to Pat and Steve Burke and made clear he was not going to let [any of the proposed changes] happen,'' says one. ''He said he wanted to protect the people that were there. He said, in essence, 'This guy has to be stopped.' And Burke and Pat buckled. They gave in to Matt and agreed to fire Jamie.''
NBC loyalists fiercely deny this. ''Completely untrue, 100 percent untrue,'' responds one. ''I understand the theory, but frankly I reject it. Matt did not go to Steve. Ever. Jamie was fired because it was an intolerable situation.'' In fact, another NBC loyalist confirms that Lauer had spoken to Burke, weeks earlier, during one of their regular lunches. Horowitz had run many of his proposed changes by Lauer, and Lauer told Burke he had ''deep concerns.'' ''Jamie ran into Matt Lauer'--it's as simple as that,'' says one longtime NBC observer. ''Don't believe anything else.''
Whatever happened that weekend, the final blow landed on Monday morning, when a reporter for Us Weekly called for comment on a report that Horowitz wanted to fire Savannah Guthrie. Turness was apoplectic. ''We have to fire him'--today,'' Turness told Fili, who agreed. Turness called him in, fired him, then was obliged to issue an embarrassing press release denying all the rumors of imminent change at Today. The upshot of the whole episode was that whatever changes she wanted to make she now couldn't.
The Horowitz incident was a very public embarrassment, but because no one involved seemed eager to discuss it, it soon disappeared from the headlines. Not so the extraordinary situation that beset Brian Williams.
Coming Under FireA hint of the trouble to come, and of the tensions among the marquee players, was on display at a charity gala in Greenwich, Connecticut, the week before Horowitz's firing. The evening honored Tom Brokaw's work for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, which helps fight a cancer from which Brokaw suffers. ''The lowest of lows had to be that dinner,'' says one former NBC executive. ''It was a huge deal for Tom. The world turned out. Tom was devastated to find out that Pat Fili, who is just so blind to the relationships and what really went on, told the people putting on the dinner that it would be great to have Brian introduce Tom. That was the last thing Tom wanted. And then Brian started off telling stories. He told the Berlin Wall story. Well, this sent Tom into spasms of anger.''
The ''Berlin Wall story'' was one Williams has long told'--and apparently embellished'--about the time he and Brokaw visited the Berlin Wall, in 1989. ''This is the perfect example of what Brian does,'' says a former NBC executive who worked closely with Williams for years. ''He will say, and I've heard this a hundred times, 'When Tom and I were at the Berlin Wall '... ' O.K., so when he tells that story, he kind of implies that when the wall fell he was there with Tom. But he wasn't. He was there the next day. It wasn't malicious'--it's just Brian being Brian. It's the part of Brian's personality that bothers Tom the most.''
This executive long believed that Williams's penchant for embellishment was a function of his insecurity when it came to Brokaw, but that it was all essentially harmless. ''I always felt he needed to jack up his stories because he was trying so hard to overcome his insecurities,'' this executive says. ''And he had to follow Tom, which brought its own set of insecurities. He likes to sort of tell these grandiose tales. But, can I tell you, in all the years we worked together, it never rose to the point where we said, 'Oh, there he goes again.' I just saw it as one of the quirks of his personality.'' It was a quirk, however, that incensed Brokaw, who is still thought highly of inside the news division. ''Tom treated that anchor chair as a public trust,'' says one former correspondent. ''He really was our Walter Cronkite.''
''Tom and Brian,'' one longtime friend of both men says with a sigh, ''that was never a good relationship. Tom pushed for him to get that job. But Brian never embraced Tom. And I don't know why'.... He knows the rank and file will never love him like they did Tom, so he never tries. That's the reason there's not a lot of support for Brian over there.'' An industry insider adds, ''There is also a lot of envy of Williams's movie-star good looks, his long happy marriage to a wonderful woman, great kids, and he's paid millions to read a thousand words five times a week from a teleprompter.''
None of this'--not the ill will between Brokaw and Williams, certainly not Williams's penchant for embellishment'--registered on Turness's or Fili's radar as they belatedly turned their attention to Nightly News last fall. For much of Turness's tenure she hadn't needed to tread on Williams's turf; his show was No. 1 in the ratings, and other shows demanded her attention. The two had a relationship that friends describe as cordial but not close. At Matt Lauer's suggestion, Turness gave Williams one of Edward R. Murrow's old desks as a present on his 10th anniversary in the anchor chair, in December. Williams accepted it graciously, though one suspects the multi-million-dollar contract (reportedly up to $10 million a year) NBC offered was even more welcome. The new contract was a vote of confidence in Williams at a time he was facing his first serious ratings challenge in years, from a 41-year-old newcomer named David Muir, who had taken over ABC News's nightly broadcast.
A month later, on an unremarkable Friday evening in late January, Williams ended his broadcast by thanking a soldier whom he had taken to a hockey game at Madison Square Garden and who, he said, had been among those who had come to his rescue when a helicopter he was on came under rocket attack in Iraq in 2003. Turness saw the story and liked it, terming it ''very sweet.'' What she liked even more, she told one listener, was its performance once it was posted to Facebook, which she called ''extremely good.''
As the world now knows, the story was not accurate; Williams had been on a helicopter that came upon the damaged chopper about an hour later. As it happened, a pilot involved in the incident saw the broadcast and that evening wrote a Facebook post insisting Williams's version couldn't be true. When Williams learned of the claim, which was subsequently seconded by several other soldiers, he did not tell Turness or Pat Fili, even though he and Fili had lunch the following Tuesday.
By then, a Stars and Stripes reporter named Travis Tritten had been tipped off to the exchange. On Tuesday he spent the day talking to five former soldiers, all of whom said Williams's helicopter had not in fact come under fire. Wednesday morning Tritten called NBC.
''They found out about this from a reporter! Amazing!'' seethes a onetime NBC executive. A former NBC correspondent marvels that Williams did not tell Turness or Fili: ''The very fact they only learned about it that day tells you they had no relationship with [their stars].''
Even after Turness learned of the situation, that afternoon, she remained only peripherally involved in drafting the apology. ''Believe me, if Zucker had been there, someone like Allison Gollust [a longtime NBC News P.R. chief, now at CNN] would've been sitting with him for days working out the wording of this apology. The lack of a relationship with Turness played a huge role in how this played out. Because it was the apology that caused the problem, not the crime itself.''
Steve Burke learned of things only after the apology broadcast. Even then the enormity of Williams's gaffes had yet to sink in. According to insiders, it wasn't until someone found a video clip of Williams telling a version of the same story on David Letterman's show in 2013 that Turness and Fili realized how much trouble Williams was in. ''When we watched the Letterman clip, [the reaction was] horror, absolute horror,'' says one insider. ''You could tell this was going to be very bad. It put us into a whole new universe.''
Thursday morning Burke convened a crisis group, including Turness and Fili, that he said would meet twice a day at his Upper West Side apartment. Its first priority was unearthing the truth about what had happened in 2003. Williams himself, they soon realized, would be of little help. He appeared shell-shocked. ''He was having a tough enough time coming to grips with the idea that he had gotten it wrong in the first place, slash misrepresented it, slash lied,'' recalls one insider. ''He wasn't anywhere in the ballpark of being helpful about what happened 12 years ago.''
''You talked to Brian, and he said, 'I slept two nights under the wing of that helicopter, looking up through the hole in the wing [from the rocket fire],' '' one insider recalls. ''There was a sandstorm, and somehow, in the process, he said, he must have come to believe he had been on the helicopter. Later, his wife [Jane] tried to explain. She said he put things in boxes [in his mind]. He would only talk about what was in those boxes on-camera.'' This insider stops and sighs. ''You're not going to get clarity, because the people who might understand what happened don't understand.''
Turness asked Richard Esposito, who had been hired away from ABC in 2013 to be NBC's senior executive producer of the investigative unit, to convene a group to examine the facts of the helicopter incident, as well as those of other possible Williams embellishments popping up online, from his sight of a dead body floating through the French Quarter during Hurricane Katrina to stories he told of hobnobbing with members of the navy's SEAL Team Six.
That Friday, with the story still dominating national headlines, Williams quietly told Burke he was willing to leave his broadcast until the matter could be cleared up. Williams's agent and lawyer, the respected Bob Barnett, suggested they table the discussion until the weekend. ''Everybody was sort of heartbroken for Brian,'' says one loyalist. ''It was terrible for the company, yes, but it was just awful for him. It was one of the fastest falls I can remember seeing. There was a little bit of shell shock. What we decided to do was we needed the weekend to come. We needed some distance.''
Saturday morning all the NBC brass but Burke met with Williams and Barnett at the anchorman's 58th Street apartment. The sense of the group was that Williams had no choice but to step aside, and Williams, to his credit, made no efforts to fight back. The next day, Sunday, Burke convened an all-day meeting of the crisis group back at his apartment. They began with a 45-minute presentation from Esposito on his preliminary findings.
''At that moment Brian assumed he was coming back in a week, four days'--something,'' says a person who was at the meeting. ''Esposito took a perfunctory look at all this stuff [coming in] over the transom, and his clear sense was all this other stuff couldn't be easily dismissed. Our judgment was there was no way we could bring Brian back quickly and be able to categorically deny and prove wrong all of these [other] things in the near term.''
By nightfall the group agreed that a suspension was in order, probably for six months, a period that would, if nothing else, give them time to study the extent of Williams's transgressions. Afterward, Burke took the time to confer with Brokaw, who had canceled a Caribbean vacation to be available. ''Tom will never say this for the record, but I've talked to him about this, and I can tell you for a fact Tom is livid about this,'' says a friend. ''Tom didn't push Brian out, but he didn't try to save him, either.''
Burke reconvened the crisis group for one final meeting in his conference room the next day, found everyone still in agreement on the six-month suspension, and e-mailed Williams to come to his apartment the next morning, Tuesday. The two men met there alone. ''It was sad but amicable, no harsh words,'' says the NBC partisan. ''Steve told him it would be six months, and Brian accepted that. Was there pushback? It wasn't available, to be honest. Steve basically said to Brian, 'This is what we're going to do, and we're not going to discuss it. If you want to come back, this is what it will take.' ''
Publicly, at least, that was the end of it. Behind the scenes, a number of Williams's closest friends have lobbied hard that he be allowed to return to Nightly News after his suspension. The Esposito investigation, however, is ongoing, and people who have spoken to Esposito say his group has compiled a number of other incidents that, taken as a whole, paint a portrait of Williams as a man who has consistently burnished his stories. While he has accepted responsibility for his actions, friends say, Williams is bitter, especially at those who he believes might have saved him.
''I talked to Brian about this,'' says one friend, ''and I'll never forget what he said at the end. He said, 'Chalk one up for Brokaw.' ''
Williams's future, NBC insiders insist, remains up in the air. He and Andy Lack are close friends, leading to widespread speculation that Lack will reinstate him once his suspension is complete. But people close to Lack say nothing has yet been decided. Many NBC observers simply can't imagine a network anchorman ever returning to his former position after being exposed as Williams has. The most Machiavellian scenario, floated by an NBC partisan, is that Jeff Zucker, whose distaste for Comcast executives is well known, has fanned the flames of controversy so that he can eventually snare Williams for CNN'--not as a newsman but as the long-sought replacement for Larry King. ''That's the perfect solution,'' a source says. ''Zucker gets a star, and Brian gets the talk show he always wanted.''
Another NBC partisan points out that Comcast is simply suffering much the same pain General Electric did in the late 1980s in purchasing a news division it knew little about managing, suffering a scandal as a result (the Dateline truck incident for G.E.), and then cleaning house and bringing in Lack to fix it. ''Don't you see?'' this person says. ''It's all happening again, just 20 years later.''
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