NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams apparently feels he’s become a distraction. In a note today to colleagues at NBC News, Williams declared that he would remove himself from “my daily broadcast for the next several days.” That step, he writes, will “allow us to adequately deal with this issue.” Lester Holt will substitute for Williams during this period.
Journalists generally aim to tell stories, not become part of them, and Williams shows awareness of just where he fits in that continuum: “In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions,” he writes.
Despite calls from critics for his resignation over this week’s revelations that he embellished — in the most charitable of interpretations — the events of March 2003, when he embedded with the U.S. Army during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Williams appears committed to riding out this storm: ” Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us,” he writes in the note.
Williams is a huge deal at NBC News, the face of the network and a guy who makes a reported $10 million-plus per year. The note that he sent out references his title as “managing editor” of NBC News and suggests that the decision to pull back from the broadcast was his alone.
Yet Williams’s fate lies in the hands of his superiors, as NBC News President Deborah Turness signaled yesterday in a note to colleagues of her very own. “As you would expect, we have a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired,” wrote Turness in reference to the internal investigation now taking place at NBC News. “We’re working on what the best next steps are – and when we have something to communicate we will of course share it with you.”
After a broadcast last week in which he falsely reminisced about sustaining rocket-propelled grenade fire in a Chinook helicopter in Iraq as U.S. forces rolled toward Baghdad, Williams found himself facing debunking from Army personnel on Facebook — a backlash that forced Williams to issue apologies on Facebook and on an NBC Nightly News broadcast. The anchor’s expressions of contrition, however, have done nothing to quell a media-wide effort to determine if he’d stretched the truth on other occasions. Much skepticism has fallen on statements he’s made about his coverage of Hurricane Katrina, particularly a quip about spotting a body floating by a hotel window in the French Quarter — where little flooding actually took place.
It’s unclear just what benefit may accrue to Williams from disappearing from the broadcast. A far more journalistic approach would have been to stay in his anchor chair and answer every last criticism that has come his way in recent days. New York University professor Jay Rosen pointed out that the rest of the media has busied itself nailing down the fine points of the helicopter outing that Williams has so mangled in repeated interviews over the years:
[W]hy isn’t Brian Williams the one interviewing the military veterans who can help him correct his faulty account? Why isn’t he putting his prestige and instant name recognition to work in getting to the bottom of what actually happened? Sure, it might be humbling. And there might be credibility problems since he would be investigating himself, in a way. But going right at those problems — and emerging on the other side with something that the audience, his colleagues and other journalists can trust — is exactly what’s called for in this situation.
The implication of Williams’s note is a strange one. Check out these two sentences: “As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”
Now, it’s unclear just what Williams is referencing in terms of “deal[ing] with this issue.” But there’s a hint here that his effort to be “worthy” of trust will take a break until he returns to the anchor chair. This crisis is too big for Williams to duck.