Bryan Burrough of Vanity Fair on Reliable Sources: “…time is actually on NBC’s side… I would guess they’re going to take this to the last possible minute”
Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Vanity Fair correspondent Bryan Burrough, Variety.com, co-Editor-in-Chief Andrew Wallenstein, and Baltimore Sun television and media critic David Zurawik joined senior media correspondent Brian Stelter to discuss their reporting on whether NBC is likely to return Brian Williams to Nightly News, if news executives are likely to move him to another role at NBC, or if he is likely to separate from the network.
Reliable Sources airs Sundays, 11 a.m. to noon (ET).
Text highlights and a transcript from the show are available below. Credit all usage to CNN’s “Reliable Sources”
Stelter on his sources pointing at the option of Brian Williams staying at NBC, but not on ‘Nightly News’: “…my sources are pointing to a third option, a new role for Williams. Not necessarily at “Nightly News,” but somewhere else at NBC. Now, these talks are still top secret inside the network and anything could happen, but NBC News’s new chairman Andy Lack is said to be advocating for this third option, this new role that would keep Williams in the fold. Now, presumably, that would keep Lester Holt at the “Nightly News” anchor desk for the foreseeable future.”
Burrough on NBC’s support for Brian Williams’ return to ‘Nightly News’ versus Lester Holt: “And it’s very clear that down in the ranks, there’s not a lot of support for having Brian come back and there is a lot of support for Lester Holt who remains terribly popular with NBC and whose ratings are holding up. …Lester Holt is no one’s idea of a buzzy star, but he’s a workman-like professional, popular newsman who brings the credibility to that news desk that NBC badly needs.”
Burrough on if there are other possible jobs outside of NBC for Brian Williams: “I think there’s going to be possible jobs. I don’t think any of them possess the luster or the prestige of anything that he could do at NBC News. I’ve always thought that NBC remains his last best chance to stay in the news business. That if he leaves he would almost certainly go into a talk show role which I think may ultimately make the most sense.”
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning. I’m Brian Stelter and it’s time for RELIABLE SOURCES.
It’s a big news day. And we’re beginning with the news story the whole TV business cannot stop talking about. It’s about the man over my shoulder, Brian Williams, and what’s going to happen with the suspended newsman.
It’s been almost four months since he was suspended and most people have been assuming he will either come back to “Nightly News” at the end of the suspension, or he will be leaving NBC entirely, frankly tarnished or disgraced after that exaggeration scandal.
But this morning, my sources are pointing to a third option, a new role for Williams. Not necessarily at “Nightly News,” but somewhere else at NBC.
Now, these talks are still top secret inside the network and anything could happen, but NBC News’s new chairman Andy Lack is said to be advocating for this third option, this new role that would keep Williams in the fold. Now, presumably, that would keep Lester Holt at the “Nightly News” anchor desk for the foreseeable future.
Brian Williams has called NBC home for over 20 years, but it’s still quite possible two sides will not agree on this new role. Some of my sources think he is on the way out, but others see a way for him to stay in. These negotiations have been going on for weeks and several times along the way, it’s seemed there is imminent news. But I’m at the moment told there’s been no official decision about whether he will stay or whether he will go.
So, we have all the angles covered this morning beginning with Bryan Burrough, a correspondent with “Vanity Fair”, who wrote an exclusive article about what happened inside NBC when all this happened in February.
Bryan, thanks for being here this morning.
BRYAN BURROUGH, CORRESPONDENT, VANITY FAIR: Pleasure.
STELTER: Your story was a tick tock explaining how we got to this point where Williams was suspended. Do you think it makes sense for him to return in some way?
BURROUGH: I actually think for all parties concerned, it makes perfect sense. If you’re NBC why get rid of a very valuable asset? If you bring him back in the fold, let him do some documentaries, stand-ups, heck, let him do something in MSNBC, what’s the worst that could happen? And that doesn’t work out and there’s pushback, you can part ways then.
And for Brian, it’s very clear he knows what the future holds for him out there if he leaves NBC. It’s called Dan Rather. I don’t think he wants that.
STELTER: Tell me what you mean by that? You don’t think there’s a lot of other possible jobs for Williams outside NBC.
BURROUGH: I think there’s going to be possible jobs. I don’t think any of them possess the luster or the prestige of anything that he could do at NBC News. I’ve always thought that NBC remains his last best chance to stay in the news business. That if he leaves he would almost certainly go into a talk show role which I think may ultimately make the most sense.
STELTER: When we talk about this new role, the sources that I have been talking to don’t say it’s necessarily within NBC News. For all we know, it could be somewhere else in the company like MSNBC or NBC Entertainment.
BURROUGH: You bring him on. Who is not going to watch the first thing Brian Williams does? Let’s say he does a one-hour documentary on his own plight. Let’s say that leads to stand-ups or specials on MSNBC or a talk show on MSNBC. And if none of that works out, then they let — then they part ways.
I mean, I think from Andy’s point of view, Brian is too valuable just to throw out the door. We also know that the men have long, strong social connections.
STELTER: Right. They were said to be friends and when Lack was hired two months ago, people said, oh, this means Brian Williams is coming back to the “NBC Nightly News” anchor chair. Maybe it’s just more complicated than that.
BURROUGH: I think that’s the least likely scenario, is that Brian —
STELTER: You mean him going back to “Nightly News”?
BURROUGH: I don’t see him coming back to “Nightly.” I mean, you have to remember, to most of America, to most viewers, he’s just the man on the screen. But at NBC, he has to be the top news executive. He’s a manager and a symbol.
And it’s very clear that down in the ranks, there’s not a lot of support for having Brian come back and there is a lot of support for Lester Holt who remains terribly popular with NBC and whose ratings are holding up.
STELTER: Yes, he’s held onto almost all of Brian Williams’ audience. Not quite all of it. It’s been a closer competition with ABC then it had been before. But I have been surprised that Holt has done as well as he has, given all the drama and uncertainty right now.
BURROUGH: Lester Holt is no one’s idea of a buzzy star, but he’s a workman-like professional, popular newsman who brings the credibility to that news desk that NBC badly needs.
STELTER: I’m told that when he was out in California recently accepting an honorary degree, Andy Lack and Deborah Turness, the head of NBC News, came with him. They wanted to be there and be with him.
They had a meeting at the L.A. bureau with the staff and perhaps that was a show of support for Holt, because one of the weird things is they’re not promoting Holt. They’re not saying he’s the anchor. He’s just the fill-in.
BURROUGH: No, I think everyone involved realizes that Lester is taking one for the team right now. He’s in not an untenable situation, but an unpleasant situation. He’s in limbo and I think they want to do everything possible to show their support for him, not just to show the support but also because he is so popular in the ranks.
STELTER: You dive down so deep into the story for “Vanity Fair.” Wrote one of the definitive stories about what went wrong.
Are you surprised now months later that we’re still talking about this, that there hasn’t been an announcement by NBC?
BURROUGH: No, I’m not. From the beginning, I felt that NBC was going to take as long as possible to come up with a solution. They need to keep their finger in the wind. They need to get a sense how people like you and other media critics are going to react to all the potential roles.
I always anticipated and I think we’re just now getting to see a series of trial balloons about what Brian might be, and they want to see I think how the public and how the media react to that.
STELTER: There’s one thing this story has in common with the Duggars in “19 Kids and Counting” scandal, only one thing in common, and that is NBC doesn’t have to do anything right now, and TLC doesn’t have to do anything about the Duggars because that show isn’t currently on the air, so they don’t have to make a decision about its future.
Maybe that’s what’s happening here, too. NBC doesn’t have to decide today because Lester Holt is doing well and Brian Williams is on the bench. So, that’s why we haven’t heard an announcement.
BURROUGH: It’s strange but time is actually on NBC’s side. We’re entering the dog days of summer, and I would guess they’re going to take this to the last possible minute. It’s in both sides’ interest I think to take all the time they can and both sides it’s clear at least elements of both sides would like to see Brian come back in some role.
STELTER: Brian, thanks for being here and explaining with us.
STELTER: Appreciate it.
For more on this, let’s turn to Andrew Wallenstein, the co-editor-in-chief of “Variety”, and David Zurawik, a media critic for “The Baltimore Sun”.
DAVID ZURAWIK, BALTIMORE SUN: Thank you.
ANDREW WALLENSTEIN, CO-EDITOR IN CHIEF, VARIETY: Thanks.
STELTER: Andrew, let me start with you out in L.A. I want to capture the idea that the whole industry keeps talking about the story. It’s an obsession among television news types.
Have you sensed this died down at all, or this continues to be the topic du jour for the industry?
WALLENSTEIN: Well, I don’t think the attention is quite as great as it was when the scandal first broke, but, man, the suspension has created a lot of suspense. I mean, if I was running NBC Entertainment, I’d say this is good fodder for a drama series.
STELTER: David, I would completely agree with what Andrew just said. I wonder what you make of the idea of a new role for Brian Williams. You’ve been pretty outspoken that Williams’ credibility has taken a severe blow here.
ZURAWIK: I think it has. As a journalist, Brian, I don’t think he can return to that anchor desk. He certainly can’t return as managing editor and anchor.
But I’ll tell you something — number one, I think Bryan and you are absolutely right about trial balloons. I think NBC is floating a trial balloon and this is a good place to do that.
But I think also if you look at Andy Lack’s history, he did news magazines in the ’80s and ’90s, and one of the things I learned writing about those news magazines is they were a great place to lay off anchorman’s salaries. You saw the anchors hosting prime time news magazines because the money was so great for them. -Andrew Hayward was another guy who did this at CBS.
So, this is sort — Andy Lack knows how to do this, and if they’re stuck with his salary in some ways, putting him in even a quasi-journalistic primetime show, something like “48 Hours” or having him do interviews, I think that — I think that might work for them. And I really if Lack can pull that off, it’s a smart thing.
But he’s got to get him out of the evening news — out of the “Nightly News” for a whole bunch of reasons. His journalistic credibility I think is shredded. It’s with military families, with millennials especially who are photo shopping him into any scene everywhere whenever there is scene. That’s a real for them.
But I think this third possibility sounds OK as long as it’s not journalism.
STELTER: Don’t you think, though, Americans are fundamentally forgiving people. If enough time goes by, he can return to a news anchor job?
ZURAWIK: I hope not. Honestly, I’m serious, Brian. I think it’s part of a kind of malaise in this country that people on Wall Street who are too big to fail can do terrible things in 2007, 2008 to the economy and not be touched.
I think there’s a reason people were saying early on about Brian Williams, too big to fail. He’s going to get away with this.
I think Americans are really sick of that, heartsick in a way, and I think if they put him back in that anchor chair, they’re going to risk facing that kind of blowback from those people.
WALLENSTEIN: But, Brian —
STELTER: Andrew, help us pull the curtain back a little bit, because fundamentally, it comes down to money, right? It comes down to financials. We’re talking about a contract and one way or another NBC might have to pay Brian Williams a lot of money.
WALLENSTEIN: Yes, but, you know, here is the thing I don’t understand. Why would he be not OK on the anchor desk but you put him anywhere else and he’ll be just fine? I think that’s ridiculous.
ZURAWIK: Because it’s an entertainment program, because he’s doing entertainment.
WALLENSTEIN: He faces a credibility problem. He faces a credibility problem —
ZURAWIK: Not if you’re doing “48 Hours” introducing segments.
WALLENSTEIN: David, you’re being ridiculous.
ZURAWIK: No, it’s not ridiculous.
WALLENSTEIN: The fact of the matter is —
ZURAWIK: You can say ridiculous, it’s not ridiculous.
STELTER: Literally the debate that’s happening inside NBC about this.
Andrew, go ahead.
WALLENSTEIN: Listen, he needs to get out there and do what he has not done from the very beginning, which is address this problem head on at length, very specifically, show some contrition. If he doesn’t do any of these things, NBC could make him a correspondent on mars, and it will still be a problem.
ZURAWIK: It’s way too late for contrition. It’s way too late.
STELTER: David —
WALLENSTEIN: I think — I do believe that the American public has it in its mitts to offer some forgiveness, but not if Brian Williams is going to continue to stiff upper lip this in silence.
ZURAWIK: But you can’t — you can’t —
WALLENSTEIN: It’s not too late.
STELTER: Let me try one other idea out on you, David, because I know you follow cable news very closely. What about MSNBC? What about putting Brian Williams back where he grew up, in cable news, on MSNBC?
ZURAWIK: You know what, Brian — I think Andy Lack has to fix MSNBC, which has massive problems. I don’t think putting Brian Williams back there right now with the credibility issues is the right move for MSNBC. He has to convince people that MSNBC is concerned with giving Americans trustworthy, reliable information. Putting someone who is — who has lied and who has lied on several occasions and seems to have some kind of compulsion to enhance his resume is not the way you restore credibility for a troubled news channel.
So, I get what you’re saying. I think it makes sense because of is star power and his visibility and you think, wow, this guy could — by cable standards this, guy would drive ratings through the roof. If it wasn’t a credibility issue and MSNBC hadn’t blown itself up with its ideology in the last few — with its commitment — overcommitment to ideology in the last few years.
STELTER: I think the agreement here is there will be a second act for Brian Williams. The question is exactly what it is and that’s still being figured out.
But before I go, I want to bring up, one good news item for NBC News — and, Andrew, I wanted to ask you about this, about the “Today” show. It had back-to-back ratings victories in May. That hasn’t happened in a couple years.
Are we starting to see a comeback for what is frankly the more important asset for NBC News, the “Today” show?
WALLENSTEIN: Well, if I’m Deborah Turness, I don’t think I’m popping champagne corks just yet, but it’s an encouraging sign. She’s seeing good results there. She’s seeing “Meet the Press” is doing well. The evening newscast with Lester Holt, of course, doing well. These are all good signs, but no victory lap in sight just yet.
STELTER: Andrew Wallenstein, David Zurawik, thanks for being here this morning, I appreciate it.
WALLENSTEIN: Thank you.