"Appropriate." "Severe." "Unprecedented." "Unbelievable." But no one that I'm aware of has used the word "wrist slap" to describe the six-month suspension of Brian Williams, which he was hit with Tuesday night just a week shy of his on-air apology for the now-notorious copter whopper story.
What most observers were really left with however, were the usual -- questions, and lots of them.
Foremost, will Brian Williams even return to "Nightly News," or can he ever recover the trust (yeah, that word again) if indeed he does?
But at least a few facts in the anguishing Brian Williams saga were finally incontrovertible: NBC News and Comcast acted quickly and severely, clearly coming up with a middle road solution that stopped just short of firing but which also conveys intent of seriousness and an attempt to preserve the battered integrity of an entire news division.
The hammer came down from Steve Burke, the NBC Universal CEO, and scion of a former chief executive of Capital Cities/ABC, Dan Burke who, along with Thomas Murphy, ran what was long considered the best-run TV station company in the industry.
But the long Burke/Murphy run was also characterized by what many said was a ruthless attention to ethical behavior -- somewhat unusual in an industry that did not normally ruminate at great length over ethics. At Cap Cities, when there were miscarriages, Burke/Murphy acted quickly and furiously. My distinct recollection is that the word "fired" was usually part of the press release.
Clearly Steve Burke -- who learned almost everything he knows about TV from these two men --- learned that particular lesson well.
He absolutely hammered Williams Tuesday -- but stopped just short of demolishing him..
Here's his comment: “This has been a painful period for all concerned and we appreciate your patience while we gathered the available facts. By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate. Brian’s life’s work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”
Perceptions for Burke and NBC are vitally important here. They have to be seen as taking action that isn't merely "punitive" but reflective of the blow Williams' on-going myth-making has inflicted on NBC News.
As I've said repeatedly in posts on this subject, the anchor of "Nightly News" is a symbol of not merely a program, but of an entire news division. As such, his truth-stretching discredited NBC News and by association hundreds of other employees.
A silly idea that emerged early on in this saga in some corners was that "Brian Williams is too big to fail" -- meaning NBC had invested too much money in building his brand. But no one bothered to ask, is NBC News too big to fail? Clearly the answer was no -- it was not. Williams therefore was going to be thrown overboard before the ship went down too.
But Burke also has taken a covering-my-bets posture here too.
Williams after all did not get fired, although in fact Burke had cause.
Here's the critical line from last night's suspension memo, as written by NBC News chief Deborah Turness: "While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position."
"While on 'Nightly News...'"
Remember those words for they are key, and provided Burke and his army of Comcast lawyers cause to formally end the Williams run at "Nightly" for good.
Here's why: Williams may have told his copter whopper story on "Late Show with David Letterman" -- where he relayed it with the chest-puffing bravura reflective of a late night barroom conversation following a few beers -- but he also told it on NBC News' air.
That was the line crossed too far...
He had told a lie on "Nightly News," knew it, and therefore abrogated his role as anchor.
As NBC News employees were muttering the following morning, if any of them had done what he had just done, they would have been accompanied out of the building by security.
Burke instead opted for something both novel and risky. Some observers told me last week there was a "humane" argument to be made in favor of Williams -- to wit, do not destroy the man's career after all the good he's done for the news organization.
The problem is, "humane" has never been a word used in the television industry - ever.
This decision was strictly business, and that was Burke's core intent. But there's more too. Lester Holt is the new anchorman of "Nightly News." He is a trusted and well-liked individual inside NBC News. He's also a familiar figure to viewers. He's therefore what might be called a "settling presence" -- someone rattled NBC News employees can get behind, but also someone viewers won't reject.
But the door still remains open for Williams to return in September, the beginning of the fall season, and a time when new stuff hits the air anyway.
By that point, Williams will also be new.
So let's crystal ball this, along with the risks.
The most likely scenario at the moment: Williams indeed returns to "Nightly News," which will precipitate an avalanche of press all over again, pointing to his copter whopper story, along with all of the other journalistic lapses that an on-going internal investigation is certain to uncover by then.
At that point, Williams then becomes an anchor with an asterisk: Someone who has served time, done penance, and is repentant. But also someone who lost the trust he once had, and now must re-earn.
Burke's bet is that he possibly can. My bet is that it's going to be a long and difficult process.
I said in a post this past Sunday that Williams was "done" at "Nightly News," and I stand by every word in that post expect perhaps that one.
There are versions circulating of how a comeback might unfold, and here's mine: Williams returns to "Nightly" but also hits the road, covering stories overseas of vital importance, going to war zones, going to blighted parts of Africa, and then -- story by story, re-building a resume and a name.
He especially does this: Covers the U.S. military, and all of the enormous burdens that veterans are now facing.
He lives with these service members, tells their stories in great detail, becomes almost one of them by osmosis -- while remaining an objective newsman telling the nation what they are going through.
As time goes on, that asterisk then begins to fade. As years go on, it maybe even disappears, or becomes a footnote -- indeed an important one - to a long career.
OK, that's the dream story, and probably the one Williams and Burke are now hoping to see unfold.
There are other possible scenarios too. An obvious one: Holt makes his own impact on “Nightly” and becomes for viewers the de facto anchorman.
He will in fact become the first solo African American anchorman of a broadcast weeknight evening newscast in history. That alone is a powerful statement that NBC News is making here.
And another possibility: That Williams and Holt in some fashion share anchoring duties, with Williams on the road, and Holt at the desk in New York. That in fact was ABC’s game plan when Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff co-anchored “World News Tonight,” or until Woodruff was nearly killed by an IED in Iraq.
But most of all, how this comeback story unfolds is up to you -- the viewers. Will you forgive and forget?
Again, given time and given how Williams handles his post-suspension, I'm willing to bet that you will.
So "done?" Not quite. But the work is just beginning and six months will up before we all even know it.