NBC News anchor Brian Williams has become the story and his credibility is seriously threatened because he claimed – falsely – that he had been in a helicopter hit by a grenade during the Iraq war.
NBC officials would not say whether their top on-air personality would face disciplinary action. The Nightly News anchor for just over a decade, Williams had become an online punching bag overnight.
NBC News president Deborah Turness told staffers a team would collate the facts about the incident, in which the 55-year-old anchor said he was in an army helicopter shot down in Iraq.
“This has been a difficult few days for all of us at NBC News,” she said.
“As you would expect, we have a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired.”
Tweets with the hashtag #BrianWilliamsMemories joked that he blew up the Death Star, saved someone from a polar bear and flew with Wonder Woman in her invisible helicopter. Photoshopped pictures showed Williams reporting from the moon, and riding shotgun with OJ Simpson in his Ford Bronco.
“How could you expect anyone who served in the military to ever see this guy onscreen again and not feel contempt? How could you expect anyone to believe he or the broadcast he leads has any credibility?” wrote critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun.
Williams apologised on Wednesday for telling the story a week earlier during a Nightly News tribute to a veteran he had befriended during a 2003 reporting trip to Iraq. Before expressing his regrets on the air, Williams did so online and in an interview with the newspaper Stars & Stripes.
He speculated online that constant viewing of video showing him inspecting the damaged helicopter “and the fog of memory over 12 years, made me conflate the two, and I apologise”.
“I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground-fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert,” Mr Williams said in his apology.
His story had morphed through the years.
Shortly after the incident, Williams had described on NBC how he was travelling in a group of helicopters forced down in the Iraq desert. On the ground, he learned the Chinook in front of him “had almost been blown out of the sky”.
But in a 2008 blog post, Williams said that his helicopter had come under fire from what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPGs. He said a helicopter in front of his had been hit.
Then, in a 2013 appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show, Williams said that two of the four helicopters he was travelling with had been hit by ground fire, “including the one I was in”.