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Brian Williams needs to offer deeper apology to move forward

02/12/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/13/2015 05:59 EDT
Brian Williams needs to offer a deeper, so-called full-throated apology, and no similar exaggerations can come to light, if he hopes to return to his job with NBC News, media commentators and experts say. 

The Nightly News anchor and managing editor was suspended for six months without pay on Tuesday after falsely claiming he had been on a helicopter hit by a grenade while he covered the war in Iraq in 2003.

Williams apologized last week but there are calls for him to issue a more heartfelt mea culpa, possibly in the form of a sit-down interview with another broadcaster. 

"At some point he is going to have to answer questions about what happened and why, and how things are going to be different in the future," said Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at the Poynter Institute. 

"It’s going to be painful to watch and it’s going to be uncomfortable," he said. 

(Williams provided a one-line blurb for Aim For The Heart: A Guide for TV Producers and Reporters, a book about broadcast journalism written by Tompkins, although the two do not know each other.)

Nor can other misrepresentations come to light if Williams is to move forward, Tompkins said. 

NBC said it is conducting an internal review of Williams's work. A number of media reports have also cast doubt on some of his previous statements, including that he saw dead bodies float by his hotel while he covered Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Daring Williams to resign

Williams recently signed a contract extension to coincide with his 10th anniversary last year as anchor of the top-rated evening news program.

It's unclear what will happen at the end of the six-month suspension or how NBC will handle his return. 

"What this is going to do is open the door for six months of more investigation and interrogation to find other examples and statements, and that’s already happening today," said Tompkins. 

Jeff Greenfield, former CNN and CBS News reporter and commentator, told The Associated Press it will be interesting see how Williams spends the time, including whether he volunteers, works with veterans groups, or gets professional help. 

Some commentators have cast doubt on whether he will return at all.  

Andrew Tyndall, a television news analyst, said the suspension seems like NBC is daring Williams to resign. 

"It never occurred to me that they suspended him with a view to bringing him back," he said. 

'Time will tell'

It is also unclear at this point what long-term effect the scandal will have on the ratings for Nightly News.

"Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate," Stephen Burke, CEO of NBC Universal said in a memo, adding that he believes Williams deserves a second chance. 

The Nielsen ratings company said ABC's World News Tonight had 8.46 million viewers on Friday, while Williams's last broadcast on Nightly News had just under eight million. 

ABC's broadcast with David Muir does win occasional nights. ABC has beaten NBC on nine nights since the beginning of the TV season in September, six of them Friday nights, which in general is NBC's weakest evening. 

Tyndall said it didn't seem likely that the undermining of Williams's credibility would have an effect on viewers. 

"Time will tell," he said. "It could be that, you know, I’m wrong and audiences desert NBC News in droves and it gets drove into the ashy dustbin of history, but I don’t think that’s going to happen."

Much will also depend on Lester Holt, the man tasked with filling in for Williams, Tompkins said, explaining that anchors often make a name for themselves during major news events.

"Inevitably in the next six months there will be some kind of giant thing that will happen, and that will be Lester Holt’s time to see if he can do it," Tompkins said. 

Tompkins also said NBC would be hesitant to switch up anchors too frequently during the six months Williams is gone. 

"People tune in to see somebody that they trust and that they know," he said. 

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