Brian Williams returns to air to anchor MSNBC's coverage of pope's arrival

Dylan Stableford

Brian Williams returned to the air Tuesday, seven months after the former "NBC Nightly News" anchor was suspended without pay for fabricating stories about his reporting, both on NBC and elsewhere.

In his reduced role as MSNBC's breaking news anchor, Williams anchored live coverage of Pope Francis' historic visit to the United States on the Comcast-owned cable news channel.

"Good day, I’m Brian Williams at MSNBC headquarters in New York," the 56-year-old anchor said at the top of the 3 p.m. hour ahead of the Pope's arrival from Cuba at Joint Base Andrews — making no mention of the controversy or his six-month absence from the air.

Williams received a six-month suspension in February after admitting he embellished events that occurred in 2003 while he was covering the war in Iraq.

For years, Williams claimed he was aboard a U.S. Air Force helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and grounded during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In late January, he told the story again on "NBC Nightly News," and soldiers who were with Williams in Iraq took to Facebook to dispute his account.

In a subsequent interview with Stars & Stripes, Williams apologized, saying he had “misremembered” what happened.

Other stories, including his reporting from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, came under intense scrutiny, and NBC launched an internal investigation.

"Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times," then-NBC News president Deborah Turness wrote in a memo to staffers announcing Williams' suspension.

In June, Lester Holt, who filled in on "NBC Nightly News" during Williams' absence, was named permanent anchor.

In an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer the same month, Williams blamed his outsize ego for the embellishments.

"I said things that weren't true," Williams said. "Looking back, it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else, [to] put myself closer to the action, having been at the action in the beginning."

"I own this, and I own up to this," he said.

But Williams isn't expected to address the controversy on MSNBC anytime soon.

The network has not made Williams available for interviews this week, and Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, told the New York Times the story is no longer about him.

"The news is the star,” Lack said. “We are building a network that has as its core value delivering breaking news better than anyone else. It is not about the anchor who happens to be delivering the news.”

And don't expect to see Williams with the pope either.

"Among the allegations NBC News was believed to have been investigating were claims Williams had changed his account of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Catholic University in the late '70s while Williams was a student there," Deadline.com reported. "Initially, Williams said he was there at the time; later he said he received a blessing from John Paul."

In December, NBC signed Williams — who had recently celebrated his 10th anniversary as “Nightly News” anchor — to a five-year contract worth a reported $10 million per year. It's unclear what his contract with the network looks like now.

“Brian is one of the most trusted journalists of our time,” Turness wrote in a memo to staffers in February announcing the new deal. “He has led this organization through every major news event for the last decade, from Hurricane Katrina in his first year in the anchor chair to his exclusive interview with Edward Snowden this year, through elections, wars, natural disasters, tragedies and triumphs. In all of those cases he’s taken ‘Nightly News’ viewers to the heart of the stories that matter most in a way that’s uniquely his.”

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