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Brian Williams: New Options Won’t Solve An Old Problem at NBC

The latest twist in the Brian Williams saga came Sunday, when CNN reported that NBC News is exploring options outside of his former anchor desk that would allow him to continue his career at the company he’s called home since 1993.

But both Williams and NBC News are deluding themselves if they think such a move will put an end to this controversy.

The prospect of Williams returning to the helm at “NBC Nightly News” appears to be a non-starter now that Lester Holt is showing enough ratings strength at 6:30 p.m. to stay competitive with ABC News. Had Holt’s numbers declined precipitously enough, new NBC News chief Andrew Lack would have been in a far worse position: sticking with Williams despite his tainted reputation because of the audience he can probably still command even with his diminished stature.

But with Holt now looking like a permanent replacement, Lack still has a tough decision to make with Williams. If Lack considers the anchor radioactive enough to keep him off the air in any capacity, NBC News would be forced to get nothing in return for the substantial payout they’d be forced to hand Williams on the way out the door at 30 Rock.

That’s likely a big reason why Lack is trying to figure out another role for Williams, not to mention he’s a good insurance policy if Holt’s ratings start to tank and NBC gets desperate to stop the bleeding.

It’s hard to believe that’s what Williams would want because anything but the anchor chair will be perceived as a demotion. But unless the unlikely possibility that another news operation is prepared to give him a prominent role, his options are limited.

That doesn’t leave him with much to do at NBC. It’s possible Williams could be carted off to an existing primetime newsmagazine like “Dateline,” where he could serve as anchor or correspondent. But the notion that he is going to spend the rest of his career in some quasi-journalistic backwater like “Dateline” narrating true-crime stories seems a fate worse than early retirement.

Whatever role he would accept at NBC News, he would likely want to be involved with the kind of substantive stories that he trafficked in at the anchor desk, and those stories will require he restore his reputation–so the network doesn’t really solve its problems by finding  Williams another perch outside the anchor desk.

Lack could also opt to create a new “special correspondent” role for Williams to tackle big stories for various NBC News outlets beyond “Nightly News.” But Williams might want to give Ann Curry a call before accepting such an assignment. After her awkward ouster from “Today,” Curry was awarded a similar consolation prize and proceeded to spend the next few years floating like a ghost around the news division doing nothing of note. Having exited NBC in January, Curry clearly made the wrong career choice, letting the brand equity she built up at “Today” dissipate when she would have been better served jumping ship while still a known quantity.

Maybe Lack will figure out a more defined role for Williams so that he avoids Curry’s fate, but does it really matter where exactly he ends up? Whether Williams is an anchor or not, or on NBC or some other network, his credibility problem will be waiting for him.

Yes, the “Nightly News” is more journalistically rigorous than most other parts of the NBC News ecosystem. But where Lack’s calculus falls apart is that doesn’t mean Williams isn’t going to be held to some semblance of standards at, say, MSNBC or CNBC. If anything, shipping Williams off to any program would effectively be advertising it as, “This is Program X, Where We Don’t Care So Much About Truth.”

There is no career path available to Williams that afford him an end run around what he wants to avoid but cannot escape: a reckoning with the allegations made against him in a public forum. He’s in the bad position he is in today because he compounded his sin with lackluster apologies.

What he has to do no matter where he ends up next is clear the air by discussing the allegations at length and in detail; convey a sense of understanding the magnitude of what was done; and express some heartfelt contrition. Then and only then does he have a shot at redemption.

If Lack or Williams thought that serving time for his six-month suspension would simply wipe the slate clean like a hockey player jumping back on the ice after sitting in the penalty box, they’re being naive.

What NBC should do is take an hour out of primetime to air the findings of the internal investigation against Williams, who should sit with someone as respected as Tom Brokaw for a tough interview. It’s a tough road toward earning the forgiveness of the American public, but there’s no other way for him to go.

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