Brian Williams takes leave of absence from NBC News over Iraq war story

Is it the beginning of the end of Brian Williams' run as NBC News anchor?

 Brian Williams, acknowledging intense criticism about his memories of war reporting in Iraq, is taking a leave of absence from the anchor chair at "NBC Nightly News."

In a memo Saturday to NBC News staff, the anchorman said he'd decided to take himself "off the daily broadcast for the next several days" so he could "adequately deal with the issue." Lester Holt, who is already William's backup and NBC's weekend anchor, will fill in.

The decision comes amid a media firestorm since Williams acknowledged he had made misleading statements about being shot at in a helicopter while reporting on the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The network has launched its own internal investigation.

The move was his decision, but it has his friends and former colleagues wondering whether it's the beginning of the end of his 10-year run in the anchor chair.

An NBC News executive not authorized to discuss the situation publicly said the fact-checking into Williams' reporting on Iraq and his 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina had turned up no issues to change the anchor's status. The executive added that the expectation is Williams will return after the self-imposed hiatus.

There is an early sign that viewers are not happy over the controversy. The overnight ratings for "NBC Nightly News" were down 17% on Friday from the same night a year ago.

Williams outraged Iraq veterans and has been hammered by media critics over his false claim that he was aboard a Chinook helicopter that was forced down by grenade and small-arms fire in Iraq, even though his original 2003 reporting said it was another helicopter in the formation that was hit. Williams misstated the facts in a recent report on "NBC Nightly News" and in other interviews, and had to apologize.

Now his entire career is under scrutiny, even anecdotes he's told about rescuing puppies as a volunteer fireman in New Jersey. It could make it difficult for him to function as a high-profile TV journalist going forward.

"It's shocking and profoundly upsetting," said one former NBC News executive who asked not to be identified. "I'm not sure how he recovers."

The former colleague said there was never any reason to question the veracity of Williams' work in recent years, including his coverage of Katrina, which is now being reviewed after New Orleans news media raised possible discrepancies.

But suggestions were made in recent years that he should limit his appearances on late-night comedy talk shows.

Indeed, friends and colleagues believe the anchor's recent problems are an unfortunate byproduct from what is also seen as his strength: He's an engaging personality who can tell a great yarn on a talk show or as a master of ceremonies at a charity dinner.

When Williams tells an anecdote, according to another former NBC News executive who has worked closely with him, he has a tendency to enhance details for dramatic or entertaining effect. "But we would always say, 'That's Brian,'" the executive noted.

Williams' most damaging retelling of the Iraq mission was on the "Late Show With David Letterman" in 2013. As Williams told the false version that said his helicopter was fired upon and hit, Letterman praised the anchor for his courage.

One unlikely defender of Williams has been Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who recently told viewers the anchor's blunder on Letterman could be attributed to the pressure to "be cool" in front of a hip talk show audience that doesn't watch the news. Truth becomes secondary in such situations, O'Reilly said.

"I think he's punished to the degree of his exaggeration," O'Reilly said.

Williams' other problem was the less-than-direct nature of his apologies.

In his explanation to Stars and Stripes, the publication that first reported the disparity between the anchor's Iraq stories and the recollections of veterans who were on the mission, Williams said he "conflated" the helicopter he was on and the Chinook that was actually hit.

Transition in the management of NBC News may also not have helped Williams.

Many of the producers and executives he worked with for years — and who might have had better luck in keeping him in line — have moved on since cable giant Comcast bought NBC.

But his biggest fan has always been Steve Burke, executive vice president of Comcast and chief executive of NBCUniversal.

It was Burke who championed the failed prime-time magazine "Rock Center with Brian Williams" that was created as a platform to spotlight Williams. Now he may soon be deciding on the anchor's future.

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

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