A week ago, I wrote, "Mr. Williams won't be fired, fined or officially reprimanded, and for the most part, aside from a blemish on his legacy, his reputation as a solid and respected journalist remains intact."
I was wrong.
And, like Icarus, the Greek mythological figure who perished by flying too close to the sun, Mr. Williams' reputation has fallen to the point where he will never regain his chair as the anchor of The NBC Nightly News. And with NBC placing Mr. Williams in a six-month timeout, because the world of media spins ever faster, an attempt for Mr. Williams to reclaim his position as a trusted news anchor would be like an adult trying to return to their childhood home. It's a nice thought, but impossible, as time will have moved on.
Yesterday, in a note to the NBC News staff, president, Deborah Turness, announced Mr. Williams' six-month suspension without pay from his role as managing editor and anchor of The NBC Nightly News. Certainly, myriad options were proposed for the proper handling of Mr. Williams' on-air lies and subsequent weak and embellished apology. More than likely, many factions weighed in, from Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, to legal advisors, top NBC News brass, NBC Affiliate Relations, and other NBC talent, coupled with the reactions from a raging social media firestorm and the duplicitous pile-on from competitive media. NBC News management was faced with doing nothing and allowing Mr. Williams to return to his anchor chair, hoping the news cycle would sweep this away (it didn't), to the extreme possibility of completely cutting ties with Mr. Williams; citing legal grounds for dismissal, and terminating his contract, which would have been a cruel and overreaching reaction for a journalist who until recently, brought great favor to the network. Creating both space and time for this crisis to breathe, coupled with a tangible consequence without immediate finality for Mr. Williams, was exactly the right and compassionate resolution for all involved.
All crises produce change, and whether those changes result in something better, or worse, depend on the subsequent actions of the participants involved. For example, in 2007, while giving the commencement address at Tulane University, Mr. Williams said that never finishing college was "... one of my great regrets." Now, if he so chooses, when Mr. Williams gets past the blunt force trauma of this devastating event, he can use this opportunity for good, and become a respected journalism professor, with an emphasis on ethics, at a prestigious university. Or not.
And for NBC News, although not planned, this unexpected crisis provides the opportunity for Lester Holt to graciously emerge as Mr. Williams' permanent replacement, opening a spot for Savannah Guthrie to replace Mr. Holt as the anchor of the weekend edition of the Nightly News, which, in turn, allows Hoda Kotb to become a co-anchor of The Today Show, alongside Matt Lauer, Al Roker, and Natalie Morales, thus offering a clean and drama-free slate for Noah Oppenheim, the new and highly respected executive in charge of Today who starts in March.
I recently gave an interview to a communications major at a large university. She asked about my pedigree, and I mentioned my work for Dan Rather at the CBS Evening News. She went blank. I said Rather was like the Brian Williams of today. She remained blank. Finally I said, "Dan Rather was kind of like Jon Stewart." That she got it. And now, later this year, even Jon Stewart steps away, leaving a huge, gaping hole that will be difficult, if not impossible to fill.
Gone are the days of Cronkite, Rather, Brokaw, Jennings, Sawyer, and now Williams. Mark your calendars: Tuesday, February 10, 2015, ended the era of the celebrity, legacy news anchor. Forever.