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Brian Williams stepping aside for ‘next several days’

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Posted at 3:55 PM, Feb 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-07 17:39:32-05

NEW YORK — Brian Williams is stepping aside from his “NBC Nightly News” amid mounting questions about the accuracy of a story he told about an Iraq War mission in 2003.

“I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days,” he said in a memo to colleagues.

Williams, the subject of an internal investigation by NBC, said “it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.”

Lester Holt, anchor of NBC’s “Dateline,” will fill in for Williams.

“Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us,” Williams added.

RELATED: HOLMBERG — Brian Williams – don’t let the door hit you

NBC has struggled to respond to a scandal that broke wide open on Wednesday when Williams apologized for claiming he was aboard a helicopter in 2003 that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was actually aboard a different helicopter.

In the wake of the embarrassing revelations, journalists have started to raise questions about Williams’ reporting about Hurricane Katrina as well.

Skeptics found holes in Williams’ Hurricane Katrina coverage

It didn’t take long for the scandal enveloping Brian Williams to prompt fresh scrutiny of one of the most formative reporting assignments of his career, his time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Did Williams really, as he later claimed, see a corpse float by his hotel in the French Quarter?

Skeptics noted that the French Quarter was largely dry after the devastating 2005 storm, casting doubt on Williams’ account.

However, photos turned up Friday showing that there was indeed water surrounding the Ritz-Carlton, where Williams stayed. Individuals who were also in the area at the time have confirmed the flooding.

Dr. Gregory Henderson, a pathologist who stayed at the Ritz during the storm, told CNNMoney that he recalled waking up the morning after the levees were breached to see floodwaters that were “waist-high.”

“If the question is, was there enough water around the Ritz-Carlton for a dead person to float? The answer is yes,” Henderson said.

In a 2006 interview with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Williams described the horrifying scene in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“When you look out of your hotel room window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” Williams said.

NBC News has launched an internal investigation into Williams’ account of a 2003 helicopter mission during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The probe is also looking into Williams’ reports in the aftermath of Katrina.

Williams was in the anchor chair on Friday, and after apologizing on air on Wednesday, he did not address the scandal.

Reporters have noted another possible inconsistency in Williams’ reporting in New Orleans regarding references he made to a suicide inside the Superdome.

In the 2005 documentary “In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina,” Williams indicated that he wasn’t a witness to the suicide.

“We’d heard the story of a man killing himself, falling from the upper deck,” Williams said.

In an interview last year at Columbia Journalism School, Williams told his NBC predecessor, Tom Brokaw: “We watched, all of us watched, as one man committed suicide.”

In the interview at Columbia, Brokaw said the story “elevated” Williams, who had become anchor of “NBC Nightly News” less than a year before the storm.

“You took ownership, if you will, of the anchor chair at that time,” Brokaw told Williams.

On Friday, Brokaw responded to a report claiming that he had demanded Williams be fired over the Iraq story.

Brokaw, who was “Nightly News” anchor for 22 years, denied he had pushed for Williams to be fired, but notably did not go to bat for him either.

The anchor’s future, Brokaw said, “is up to Brian and the executives of NBC News.”

NBC’s bid for the truth on Brian Williams led by veteran ‘digger’

After dinner on Friday night, the phone rang at Don Helus’ home in Alabama.

It was Richard Esposito, a veteran journalist who is leading NBC’s investigation into Brian Williams’ shifting stories about a 2003 Iraq War mission.

“We talked for a few minutes,” Helus said Saturday. He declined to say more about the conversation because, he said, he wanted to maintain the integrity of the process.

Helus has been in the news this week. By his own account, Helus was on the helicopter Williams wrongly claimed to be on — the one that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Years ago, Helus said, he tried to contact NBC about what he calls Williams’ “embellished” account, but never heard back from the network.

Now NBC is calling back.

Williams said Saturday he is stepping aside from the daily broadcast “for the next several days.” At the same time, Esposito is re-reporting the incident to try to get to the bottom of the conflicting accounts of the rocket-propelled grenade attack. It’s an unenviable task.

Esposito is the senior executive producer of NBC’s investigative unit. In his current assignment, he’s running down the facts about Williams’ disputed Iraq story, as well as several of the anchor’s reports in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In television news industry circles, there are many raised eyebrows about Esposito’s assignment.

But Esposito is a well-respected reporter. He has a reputation as a “digger,” someone who aggressively pursues subjects and scoops, not the sort of person who’d help make unpleasant news go away.

Esposito joined NBC News in 2013 after 12 years at one of the network’s main rivals, ABC News. He was previously an editor at the New York Daily News and Newsday, and a reporter at The New York Post. He has written two books.

And he isn’t working alone: NBC News president Deborah Turness, who announced the internal probe on Friday, said “we have a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired.”

That team also includes at least two other employees, according to an NBC source with direct knowledge of the situation.

In fact, it was someone working for Esposito on the probe who first reached out to the Helus family on Friday. Don’s wife, Terri, a former public information officer for the Army, asked that Esposito call directly.

Helus was the pilot-in-command on March 24, 2003 when his Chinook helicopter came under fire in southern Iraq, according to a Stars and Stripes newspaper account of the incident published a week later.

Williams was not on the helicopter, Helus said. He added that he remembers Williams arriving on a separate copter, which had not been hit by an RPG, 30 to 45 minutes later.

But the anchor has claimed, as recently as January 30, that he had been aboard a helicopter that was hit by an RPG. He apologized for that on Wednesday, but many critics have called his apology insufficient and even misleading.

Helus said he was bothered that Williams “has been carrying this embellished credential for years now” in an apparent bid to “further his career.”

A few weeks after the incident — Helus couldn’t recall exactly when — a fellow soldier showed him an Internet video of Williams wrongly recounting what happened, Helus said.

“I heard what he was saying about him being on the aircraft that got shot down,” Helus said.

The television segment Helus described does not appear in online databases like Nexis. However, not all NBC or MSNBC segments from 2003 are recoverable through such databases.

At the time, NBC’s main web site was MSNBC.com. Helus said “I wrote MSNBC — you know, they have a link where you can write in — and I wrote, basically just alerting them that the story was not correct.”

“I sent it. I didn’t hear back. Then I went about my business,” he said. “And here we are 12 years later.”

An NBC News spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment about Helus’ account, which matches what he told local newspapers earlier this week.