Why some at NBC view Brian Williams’ suspension as an exit strategy

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NBC has bought itself crucial time with the six-month suspension of its star anchor, enough breathing room for either rehabilitation or replacement.

Brian Williams is described to me as devastated by the impact of his misconduct, extremely remorseful—and determined to fight for his job. Williams is eager to apologize repeatedly for the damage he has wrought, but that won’t happen until an internal inquiry is completed, and the timetable is unclear.

In piecing together how the sidelining of the nation’s top-rated anchor is affecting the network, sources tell me that many NBC staffers view the punishment as the beginning of a possible exit strategy. They regard it as very unlikely that Williams will be able to return to the anchor chair.

No final decision could be made on Williams keeping his job, in this view, because the internal inquiry into his false claim about being on a helicopter that took enemy fire in Iraq is not finished. What’s more, I’m told the inquiry has expanded to include embellishments on other stories, such as Hurricane Katrina—not what Williams reported on “Nightly News” but what he said in interviews on other programs. That, depending on the outcome, could further tarnish his reputation.

The prevailing view at NBC is that Williams never embraced the role of internal leader as Tom Brokaw and the late Tim Russert did. As often happens with powerful anchors—and Williams wielded the additional title of managing editor -- you were either on Brian’s team or not. That’s why you haven’t seen blind quotes in the press about news division staffers being upset at the punishment.

What’s more, there is an expectation—and some resentment—that the scandal’s taint will hurt the ratings of every NBC news show. No one expects the widely respected substitute anchor, Lester Holt, to put up the numbers that Williams did, and that could hurt his efforts to win the job permanently. “Today” and “Meet the Press” are both programs that once occupied first place and have lost that status, in the latter case because of the nosedive under David Gregory that led to his replacement by Chuck Todd.

But there is another faction at NBC that is rooting for Williams to return. Friends of the anchor are torn between their sympathy for his ordeal and concern about the damage he inflicted at 30 Rock.

It is “difficult” to report on the story, Matt Lauer said on “Today,” because “Brian is not only a colleague but a really good friend.”

“We care a lot about Brian,” co-host Savannah Guthrie said. “That’s what makes it so hard. And we care about this place, the standards of NBC News. That’s what they are trying to balance here.”

Both Lauer and Guthrie have been mentioned by the speculation machine as possible successors, but the truth is they are more valuable to NBC on the lucrative morning franchise.

The stakes for parent company Comcast are underscored by the fact that Steve Burke, installed by the company to run NBC Universal, summoned Williams to his apartment to deliver the suspension news personally. The two men are friends, but Comcast has been trying to win federal approval for a year for a merger with Time Warner Cable that has been stalled on antitrust grounds. Shelving the issue for six months frees Comcast of that taint while the company tries to get the green light from the Federal Communications Commission.

On one level, the massive media coverage and online criticism has been largely negative toward Williams. But some at NBC hope he can win back the audience, or at least the 9 million viewers who watched him each night. That, however, will require an apology that, at the moment, Williams cannot deliver—and for his bosses to still believe this summer that he deserves a second chance.

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