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Brian Williams' Suspension Brings Attention To Tom Brokaw


NBC and its parent company, Comcast, have a dilemma - whether to stick with the top-rated TV anchor whose credibility is damaged. Brian Williams was suspended yesterday for six months after lying about a wartime reporting experience. Among the people who carry great weight behind the scenes at NBC News is Williams' retired predecessor, Tom Brokaw. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been speaking with Williams' current and former NBC colleagues. And, David, Tom Brokaw, last week, put out a statement saying that Williams' fate was in his own hands and those of the network itself. What role is Brokaw actually playing here?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, look, in that statement Brokaw said last week he wasn't pushing to get Williams out, and NBC and Brokaw and Williams themselves are not giving interviews. So, you know, you can't ask directly.

But in the words of people I've been talking to, Brokaw has been really playing a role behind the scenes in figuring things out. You know, the network news chief, the top of the network pyramid - Deborah Turness, her boss and the CEO of NBC - who will together, the three of them, make this decision - are all new at NBC since its takeover by Comcast.

Tom Brokaw represents continuity, stability, trust. He's a voice they rely on and need to be seen as relying on. As one former colleague said to me - perhaps hyperbolically, but perhaps not - this will all come down to what Tom Brokaw does, as much as what the ratings are, or what the findings are of that internal review being conducted by the network.

SIEGEL: The transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams in 2004 was very smooth. What's their relationship been like since?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, since then, according to three longtime Brokaw colleagues, the relationship's been cool and evolving to frosty. It's still publicly cordial. You saw Brian Williams emcee an event for a cancer society that Tom Brokaw is affiliated with last year. They're publicly cordial, as I say, but very different approaches. Tom Brokaw sees himself from coming from an era when the news involved greater public service, in his mind. And Brian Williams, let's face it, loves the performative aspect of television, too. He loves being on "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock," "Daily Show."

One NBC executive confirmed to me that Williams' explicit dream job was to take over "The Tonight Show." That executive also said it always seemed as though the 6:30 NBC nightly newscast was something of a distraction for Williams, unless that seemed like a total aberration. Let's remember two things - one, Meredith Vieira was simultaneously a game show host and hosted "The Today Show," and Tom Brokaw was not always the Tom Brokaw we think of today. He's wrapped in the mantle of the greatest generation that he's reported on - World War II. But he hosted "The Today Show." And he was, in fact, a partial inspiration for William Hurt's ambitious but kind of weak news character - news anchor - in "Broadcast News." Today, we think of him more as a news icon.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Once upon a time, Walter Cronkite hosted "You Are There," which was...


SIEGEL: Now, you've, I gather, heard from some of Brokaw's former colleagues, who say that he's been very upset about the tenor of Williams' war coverage. What have you heard exactly?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Brokaw's told colleagues, going back at least a year, that he heard Williams giving increasingly grandiose versions of the downed Iraqi helicopter story that got him into trouble in recent days, and that Brokaw himself looked into the anecdote and that the facts simply didn't match. Similarly, in an interview Brokaw did of Williams at Columbia University last June, Williams said he witnessed a suicide following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Katrina was really this definitional story for Williams. It was just a year after he took over. Questions have been raised about the veracity of his reporting there.

Ultimately, as Tom Brokaw told one associate, he felt Williams was more of a performer than an anchor, and these tensions become relevant at a time of crisis like this. Until last night, in fact, there were few public sides of leadership by top network brass, and that makes Brokaw all the more relevant.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, David.


SIEGEL: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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