Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, is taking himself off the air for, what he says will be, “several days.” He presumably hopes that the media firestorm surrounding claimshe made about his reporting experience in Iraq will subside. He will probably be able to hang on—just as the Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino did. (I’m reminded of Marino because he just appeared on my TV screen as a pitchman for Nutrisystem.) In January, 2013, it was revealed that he had fathered a child out of wedlock with a CBS production assistant and had reportedly paid her millions of dollars, in part so his wife and six kids would not hear of it. Marino kept his sportscaster job at CBS. While caught in a different caliber of scandal, it is safe to say that Brian Williams will treat his time away from the news desk as a period of reflection. He will almost certainly cancel his scheduled appearance on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” this week. And, if captured by cameras, he will likely appear somber. But anyone capable of a long view knows there are often second—and third—acts in American public life.
However, there are some scenarios in which he does not survive as an NBC anchor. One: if more fabrications surface from the work of hundreds, probably thousands, of amateur detectives online—eager to prove that Williams was not telling the truth when he claimed, for instance, that he saw a body floating beneath his hotel window in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NBC’s probe by its own sleuth, investigations producer Richard Esposito, could also unearth more headline-making material. Senior NBC executives fear that Williams will fail to better explain what he did, and why his explanation last Wednesday on air was more spin than truth, to his audience. And if Williams comes back to the anchor’s chair and his Nielsen ratings plummet, his NBC bosses will have more reason to decide, as management did with Dan Rather on CBS a decade ago, that his image in the minds of too many viewers has been irrevocably damaged.