Suspended NBC Nightly News anchor quashed two major news stories that were critical of the Obama administration because he considered them divisive, New York Magazine reports.
The magazine’s Gabriel Sherman writes that veteran investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Lisa Myers battled with Williams to get their stories on the air.
In February 2013 Isikoff pitched a story about a Justice Department memo that “justified killing Americans with drones.” Williams took no interest in the scoop, and Isikoff was forced to give the story to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, whose viewership is a fraction of Williams.'”
The story was significant at the time because Obama’s use of drone strikes undermined his credibility as a counterweight to the Bush administration, which was accused of circumventing the law to wage the war on terror. The drone strike revelation also opened Obama to criticism from the political left.
Williams initially sat on another story that portrayed the administration in a bad light.
In October 2013, as Obamacare was off to its shaky start, Myers was set to report that the Obama administration knew as early as 2010 that millions of Americans would lose their health insurance under the new federal law.
But Obama repeated numerous times in speeches and on the campaign trail that Obamacare would not force anyone out of their coverage.
Williams did not want the story, according to Sherman. Instead, it was relegated to the NBC News website.
But the story proceeded to go viral. Williams relented and ran the piece on the Nightly News broadcast the next evening.
“He didn’t want to put stories on the air that would be divisive,” a senior NBC journalist told Sherman of Williams, who was suspended for six months last month for lying in his reporting about his experiences in the Iraq War in March 2003.
As Sherman reports, a frustrated Myers wrote Antoine Sanfuentes, then an NBC senior vice president, complaining that Williams “supressed her stories.”
Both she and Isikoff later left the network.
Sherman’s article, titled “(Actually) True War Stories at NBC News” searches for the root causes of NBC’s numerous recent fumbles. Besides the Williams debacle, the network’s flagship Sunday morning show, “Meet the Press,” has struggled to regain the prominence it had before host Tim Russert died in 2008.
Williams’ errors were pinned, in part, on the anchor being “allowed to gain so much power” over the news division.
Other reports have described that Williams’ habit of telling tall-tales — besides the Iraq helicopter story he also embellished stories from his time covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — was not met with much resistance at NBC.
“The anchor had churned through executive producers who challenged him,” Sherman writes.
Sherman’s tick-tock contains other juicy morsels.
Williams seriously considered a transition from nightly news anchor to late-night talk show host. He pitched both NBC and CBS on taking over for their outgoing hosts, Jay Leno and Dave Letterman, respectively.
The idea to replace Leno was not taken seriously by Williams’ boss, Steve Burke. Instead, Williams was given “30 Rock,” a one-hour primetime show that resembled “60 Minutes.” The show lasted two seasons before it was cancelled.
Williams’ pitch to CBS CEO Les Moonves to replace Letterman never got off the ground as Moonves was reportedly not interested.
Sherman’s piece also shows that Williams bristled at having his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, still so close to the network, Sherman reports. Though he retired in 2004, Brokoaw is still a physical presence at the network’s headquarters and is still in on the decision-making process.
According to Sherman, after Chuck Todd took over last year as host of “Meet the Press,” Williams made a reference to Russert, telling the new host, “At least your ghost is dead. Mine is still walking the building.”