Debate brews over Williams’ controversy

Brian Williams has stepped away from NBC’s “Nightly News” as the network looks into the anchor’s admission that he had told a false story about being on helicopter hit by a grenade while reporting on the Iraq war.

NEW YORK — A vigorous debate over Brian Williams’ future is brewing as “NBC Nightly News” aired Monday without the decade-long anchor.

Some critics suggest that Williams, who apologized last week for falsely claiming that he was in a helicopter that had been hit by a grenade while in Iraq in 2003, should be fired. Others wonder if commerce will win out, since Williams has kept “Nightly News” at the top of the ratings while much of his news division crumbled around him. How much are the years of good work worth?

“This is one of the toughest calls that I’ve ever seen,” said Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. “On the one hand, the public is right to expect nothing but the truth from our reporters and our news anchors.”

Williams announced Saturday he was stepping away from the show for a few days. NBC News, which launched an internal probe, hasn’t given a timetable for how long its look into Williams’ statements, coordinated by the division’s investigative editor Richard Esposito, will take or if its report will be made public.

Williams’ sub, Lester Holt, told viewers midway through Monday’s broadcast that Williams had taken himself off the air because questions have been raised about how he recalled several stories. Holt did not specify what the stories or questions were.

“He’ll be off while this issue is dealt with,” Holt said.

Levinson pointed out that this isn’t a case of someone deliberately inventing news sources or, in the case of Dan Rather at CBS a decade ago, reporting during a presidential campaign a story casting doubt on President George W. Bush’s wartime record that could not be backed up.

“The real difficulty for a news organization, or a reporter, is that once you’ve made one misstep, it’s really hard to earn (trust) back,” said David Westin, former ABC News president. “You can. But it takes a lot of time.”

The incident should remind news organizations that it’s more important to report the news than “brand” their personalities, he said.

More than 1,000 comments were posted to NBC’s “Nightly News” Facebook page. The majority supported Williams, with some posters suggesting they wouldn’t watch the broadcast until he returned. But some commenters said they wouldn’t trust him again.

Williams took a pounding in the ratings for his final night on the air Friday, but it’s unclear whether the drop in viewership was related to the controversy.

The Nielsen ratings company said ABC’s “World News Tonight” had 8.46 million viewers on Friday, while NBC’s “Nightly News” had just under 8 million.

For this television season as a whole, Williams’ newscast has led in the ratings by an average of roughly 600,000 viewers each night over ABC.

Meanwhile, another instance emerged of Williams appearing to embellish a wartime reporting experience.

Williams traveled to Israel in July 2006 to cover that country’s military campaign against Hezbollah. The anchor reported on MSNBC that he flew in a Black Hawk helicopter with Israeli military officials at a height of 1,500 feet. He said he saw a trail of smoke and dust where Katyusha rockets had landed in the uninhabited Israeli countryside. Then, he said he witnessed two rockets being launched toward Israel some 6 miles from where he was flying, according to the network transcript.

An Israeli army official who traveled with Williams during the military campaign against Hezbollah said the account the NBC anchor later offered about his trip was “generally reasonable.”

“The pilot called our attention several times to Katyusha rockets, which had just landed beneath us,” Jacob Dallal, who was acting head of foreign media in the Israeli army in 2006 and flew with Williams, told The Associated Press Tuesday. “I recall vividly him showing us the plumes of dust that resulted from the impact of the rockets. There were several instances of that happening.”

“It’s fair to assume the trajectory was underneath us,” Dallal said. “What was very visible was the point of impact.”

Dallal said he couldn’t speak to Williams’ claim of witnessing a rocket launch from a distance.

“With a helicopter in movement, each passenger had a different vantage point,” he said.