NEW YORK – Brian Williams, the popular NBC News anchor who became embroiled in controversy over false statements he made about his reporting, will no longer be the anchor of the network’s evening newscast and will be assigned to handling breaking news on cable network MSNBC, people familiar with the plan said Wednesday night.
Lester Holt, the veteran anchor who has fronted numerous programs on NBC and MSNBC since 2000, takes over the reins of “NBC Nightly News” after serving as Williams’ fill-in since the anchor was suspended in early February.
Holt, 56, makes history by becoming the first solo African-American anchor of a nightly broadcast network evening newscast.
NBC is expected to announce the changes Thursday. An NBC News spokesman could not be reached to comment. The news that Williams’ fate has been decided was first reported by CNN.
Williams was the principal anchor for MSNBC when it launched in 1994.
The announcement will end the stunning saga that began Jan. 30, when Williams delivered a report on “NBC Nightly News” meant to be a tribute to a retired military veteran who provided security to the anchor when he covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In that report, Williams falsely stated he was aboard a Chinook helicopter that was forced down by grenade and small-arms fire.
His original 2003 reporting on the incident correctly said it was another helicopter in the formation that was hit. But Williams misstated the facts of the incident on at least one other occasion, when he told the story during a 2013 appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
The furor over the false statements opened the door to examinations into the veracity of Williams’ other reporting. When further questions were raised about Williams’ description of incidents he witnessed during his 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the news division decided to launch a review of the anchor’s work. On Feb. 7, he stepped away from the broadcast, and by Feb. 11, was given a six-month suspension without pay.
NBC opened an investigation into Williams, and over the last several months, it uncovered as many as 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
The controversy escalated to the top of the corporation, with Stephen B. Burke, NBCUniversal’s president and CEO, playing a crucial role in deciding Williams’ fate, according to people with knowledge of the deliberations.
Television executives said that it would have been difficult for Williams, who became “Nightly News” anchor in 2004, to return to the anchor chair because he had lost the trust not only of viewers but also of the people in NBC News.
For Williams, 56, staying at NBC could be interpreted as something of a victory. Many media executives inside and outside the company had thought it would be untenable for him to remain.
A person close to Williams, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that his supporters saw the decision as, if not quite an exoneration, a signal that any wrongdoing investigated by NBC was not so egregious as to prevent a return.
Other NBC employees were not surprised by the controversy and said that Williams had a reputation for exaggerating stories. They said he was not widely loved in the newsroom.
The investigation was conducted in an almost legalistic fashion, said one person close to the process.
Although there was one workroom that had printouts of joke Web pictures about Williams and his purported tall tales on the walls, the person said, the work was rigorous and detailed. It generated hundreds of pages of material, based partly on interviews with Williams’ colleagues inside NBC who had firsthand knowledge of his reporting.
Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations who was leading the effort, did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment Wednesday night.
Finding an appropriate role for Williams at NBC posed a challenge, television executives said. Williams built a reputation as a master storyteller and news reader but wasn’t known for his interviewing skills or journalism chops.
Television executives said that NBC would stand to benefit by keeping Williams from going to a competitor and talking publicly about the controversy.
In the coming months, MSNBC is expected to introduce more hard news and more reporting from NBC News talent during daytime hours, which would be something of a break from its more opinion-based programming during the evening, according to a person briefed on the plans.
In December, Williams signed a new five-year contract reportedly worth $10 million a year.