CNN/ORC poll: 52% say Brian Williams should be allowed back on

Brian Williams Timeline: What he said & when

A new CNN/ORC poll shows a sharp divide in the country's reactions to Brian Williams' six-month suspension from "NBC Nightly News."

A slim majority, 52% of respondents, said NBC News should allow Williams to return to his anchor chair. But 40% said the network should not.

The poll results show a generally forgiving attitude among Americans. But the 4 in 10 who say Williams should not be allowed back on "Nightly News" signifies a serious problem for NBC moving forward.

Substitute anchor Lester Holt has retained most of Williams' audience so far. Last week he beat ABC's David Muir. If that continues, six months from now, NBC may conclude that reinstating Williams is too risky.

Only 8% of respondents said they had no opinion on the matter, perhaps reflecting the widespread coverage of Williams' February 4 apology (for exaggerating his involvement in a 2003 Iraq War mission) and the media's subsequent scrutiny of other stories he has told.

As new questions piled up, and NBC launched a fact-checking investigation, Williams stepped aside for several days.

Then on February 10, NBC suspended him without pay for six months, raising the possibility that the network has found other examples of exaggerations that further harm Williams' credibility.

The network has declined to comment, citing the fact that the investigation is ongoing.

In the meantime, Williams has become a punchline in some quarters -- on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" anniversary show on Sunday night, the actor Jim Carrey asked an unamused Matt Lauer, "Where are you hiding Brian Williams? Where is he?"

In the CNN/ORC poll, women were slightly more apt to offer Williams a second chance -- 55% of women said he should be allowed to return, and 49% of men said the same.

Republican criticism of the mainstream media was also evident in the poll results: 58% of Democrats said Williams should be allowed to return to "NBC Nightly News," versus 45% of Republicans.

The CNN/ORC International poll was conducted February 12-15, and interviewed 1,027 adult Americans. Results for all adults have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 points.

The poll results bear several similarities to research published over the weekend by Magid Associates, a television consulting firm.

In Magid's research, 44% of respondents said they thought NBC's punishment was "just right." Another 30% called it "too strong," and only 9% said it was "too weak."

All of those surveyed by Magid said they tuned in for a nightly newscast at least once a month.

Almost half -- 48% -- said they thought Williams can restore his credibility, 30% said Williams cannot regain credibility, and 22% said they were unsure.

--CNN's Jennifer Agiesta contributed reporting.

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