Williams Resigns From Congressional Medal Board

Brian Williams of NBC

Photo courtesy of NBC News

Williams Resigns From Congressional Medal Board
| published February 20, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

One of the sad ironies for NBC News’ anchor and former managing editor Brian Williams is that Chopper-Gate, the scandal in which he has been accused of exaggerating his journalistic exploits while in Iraq back in2003, came just weeks after he signed a new contract with NBC, one which would have paid him a record $10 million per year for the foreseeable future (reports differ as to whether his new contract, signed when he reached his tenth anniversary as anchor of NBC’s Nightly News, was for four, five or ten years).

Williams’ extremely high rate of pay was balanced against the sheer facts of his personality and style, which had helped to make Nightly News consistently the highest-rated of the news shows of the major networks, slightly ahead of ABC’s World News Tonight, and several lengths ahead of the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. Williams’ star power meant that he command that high salary, and NBC Universal—along with parent company Comcast—considered his pay a fair rate of exchange for those high ratings and loyal viewers.

But things have not gotten better in the last two weeks since his hiatus from the news. He had stepped down earlier in February when the narrative surrounding his credibility began to overtake all other aspects of NBC News’ operations and activities. Williams had hoped at that time that his departure would be strictly temporary—a few weeks at most—but after only a week it became a six month suspension, without pay, after which time he might be brought back to that glass and steel anchor desk in the NBC News studios.

Now, Williams is facing other ancillary problems, including the decision by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to request that he resign from that organization’s board of directors, effective this month. Williams has been a member of that prestigious panel for nine years, and has been arguably the board’s most easily-recognized media representative.

More ironic for Williams must be the fact that his current situation was triggered by an on-air homage to the heroism and bravery of the military men and women who serve in combat roles, in this case in the Iraq war which began in 2002. In January, Williams thanked members of a troop contingent he had been embedded amongst on a reporting trip to Iraq in 2003. According to Williams’ frequent retelling of the incident, the helicopter he was travelling inside was attacked and hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the ground.

But after his most recent on-air retelling of the event, soldiers and Marines present at the time disputed Williams’ account of that harrowing story. Williams, as it turned out, was not in the helicopter hit by that RPG; the damaged craft was in fact a second chopper hit some 10 minutes earlier. Slowly at first, then more quickly, social media lit up with the discrepancy, and soon Williams found himself in increasingly hot water.

Like most people in the generally broad category of entertainment—whether television, film, music or stage—his boiler-plate contractual language includes lots of caveats and obscure clauses, even in his newly renegotiated 2014 contract. In Williams’ case, the strength of his ratings and on-air attraction may have meant that a “morality clause” exists, though (and again, the terms of his new contract are confidential) his attorneys and agents may have had the clout to blunt the effectiveness of any such caveat with their own counter-clauses. Only at the highest levels of NBC and among Williams’ attorneys can such a thing be known.

But in the meantime, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society has sought to distance itself from the controversy. The CMOHF website offers little expansion on the issue, and contains a two sentence press announcement. “Brian Williams has resigned from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation Board of Directors. He had served in that position since September 2006.” The website also includes a link to other board members, and the roster includes scores of names from business, military, politics, technology, along with past honor recipients. Board members from the world of business include the CEOs of Northrop Grumman, United Technologies, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, and Raytheon.

Williams remains on a forced sabbatical. He is tentatively scheduled to return sometime this summer to NBC News, though it remains unclear what role he will play upon his return, or whether NBC Universal will replace him entirely before that time. Much media discussion has been generated as to whether it is possible, under the circumstances, to have Williams simply reappear after a six month absence. In the meantime, NBC’s ratings may suffer. Nightly News has been locked in a fierce fight for number one with ABC World News Tonight, now hosted by David Muir.

Related Thursday Review articles:

NBC News: Credibility Versus Commerce; Thursday Review editors; Thursday Review; February 10, 2015.

Brian Williams: A Brief Hiatus From NBC News?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 8, 2015.