Months After Scandal, Will Brian Williams Return To NBC News? The professional fate of Brian Williams remains up in the air after a scandal led to his six-month suspension as chief anchor of NBC News. What path could lead him back to the anchor's chair?
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Months After Scandal, Will Brian Williams Return To NBC News?

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Months After Scandal, Will Brian Williams Return To NBC News?

Months After Scandal, Will Brian Williams Return To NBC News?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/402856137/402856138" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Brian Williams has been in a professional purgatory for months. NBC suspended him in response to claims he made about his Iraq war coverage. Williams said a helicopter he had been in was forced down by a rocket-propelled grenade. The story was proven false. Network officials say they're awaiting the conclusion of an internal review of the rest of his work, but given the hit to his credibility, there are questions about how Williams could return to the anchor's chair. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik maps out a possible path back.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: For this story, I've spoken with a former network news anchor, a former network news president, two NBC executives, a leading television agent and a crisis management consultant. All thought Williams' career could have been salvaged easily enough but that his original apology simply didn't work.

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BRIAN WILLIAMS: In an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others after a ground fire incident in the desert during...

FOLKENFLIK: Williams said he was just trying to honor a veteran. Others heard rationalization.

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WILLIAMS: I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm.

FOLKENFLIK: First, they say, he needs to apologize once more, directly to veterans, to viewers, to his colleagues and peers. Williams could be seen as reestablishing credibility by answering questions from someone outside his network, such as Diane Sawyer, known for interviewing scandal-tarred celebrities. And Williams must convey that apology publicly to one critic in particular, Tom Brokaw, his predecessor as NBC News' chief anchor.

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TOM BROKAW: And I really admire his family a lot. Having said all of that, this is a really, really serious case, obviously.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Brokaw speaking earlier this month at the University of Chicago.

AARON BROWN: He needed Brokaw to run interference for him, and that clearly didn't happen.

FOLKENFLIK: Aaron Brown is a former anchor for ABC News and CNN who had a friendly rivalry with Williams. Brokaw wrote books on what he called the greatest generation, the soldiers who fought in World War II. Brown says Williams strained too hard on his own war stories.

BROWN: For some reason, I just don't think this - the subject matter has been factored in enough. I just somehow think if it were the L.A. earthquake or something or the Simpson trial - I - it would be a yawn.

FOLKENFLIK: Journalists are tough on Williams, especially those at his own network. Yet, according to two people at NBC, research suggests that Williams retains significant goodwill with the viewing public. And ratings under his substitute, Lester Holt, have softened. But they have not evaporated, which makes bringing Williams back tougher. An associate of new NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack says Lack is genuinely open-minded about Williams' fate, but published reports say the ongoing review has already turned up 10 or 11 stories in which Williams made questionable claims. Regardless, Aaron Brown argues it's time for NBC to make its call.

BROWN: You make a decision, live with it, but do it because this in-between cannot be healthy for the organization. It can't be healthy for the audience. It can't be healthy for journalism. We're talking about all the wrong things now.

FOLKENFLIK: If he answers all the questions and regains the anchor's chair, Williams would have to focus on the work and avoid late night talk shows on which he told many of the stories now under scrutiny. He'd also have to hope nothing else comes to light. Back in 1999 Williams joked he had nothing to lose after making some edgy jokes at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C. At the time he was an anchor on NBC's sister network, MSNBC.

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WILLIAMS: I'm not cocky about my own employer, but there's very little they can do punishment-wise. I'm already in cable, so...

FOLKENFLIK: And that's actually the final suggestion from NBC from a former network news chief. Ship Williams back to cable. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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