Brian Williams, acknowledging that the scrutiny and criticism he was attracting was becoming a distraction for his network, said on Saturday that he was stepping aside as anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News” for the next several days.
In a memo to the NBC News staff, Mr. Williams said that Lester Holt, the anchor for “Dateline,” would step in as the network dealt with the crisis caused by Mr. Williams’s admission that he had misled the public with an account of a helicopter incident in Iraq.
“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,” Mr. Williams said in the two-paragraph memo.
Mr. Williams is both anchor and managing editor for “NBC Nightly News.”
Mr. Williams did not say exactly when he expected to return to the anchor chair. “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 said.
Richard F. Hanley, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University, said Mr. Williams’s decision would help avert an awkward situation in which his newscast was overshadowed by the attention on his own problems. “It would be impossible for him to be as confident a reader of news with this over his head,” Mr. Hanley said. “The audience would be thinking of that and not the news he was reporting on.”
The move will also give NBC more time to sort out the issue and also to assemble a contingency plan should Mr. Williams be forced to resign, Mr. Hanley said.
“One of the interesting things about this is there is no set date for return,” he said. “It is ambiguous, which suggests that NBC executives are going to undertake a full investigation and not let him back on the air until that investigation is complete.”
The news came a day after it was revealed that NBC was starting an internal “fact-checking” investigation into Mr. Williams that would review the Iraq incident, which occurred in 2003, as well as other examples of his reporting, including during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The investigation will be led by Richard Esposito, the head of NBC’s investigative unit.
Since Wednesday, when Mr. Williams acknowledged his error during his newscast and apologized for it, he has been the target of a wave of criticism, with some military veterans, media critics and viewers calling for his resignation. Indeed, not only has Mr. Williams’s reputation taken a hit but the broader credibility of NBC’s news division has also been questioned, media analysts said.
“It may be just one bad apple, but he came out of the system,” said Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland who previously worked at NBC News.
In his newscast on Wednesday, Mr. Williams said he had embellished an account of an incident in 2003; over the years he came to say that he was in a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire, an assertion he now says is not true. He now says he was in a trailing helicopter, and that he “conflated” the two aircraft. He made no mention of the matter during his newscasts on Thursday and Friday.
The attention on the Iraq mistake has brought the rest of Mr. Williams’s career under a microscope.
Some blogs and media outlets questioned Mr. Williams’s description of what he saw while reporting on Hurricane Katrina. Should Mr. Williams be forced out of the anchor chair, it would be a major setback for NBC’s news division, which is in a fierce competition for viewers. So far this season, NBC has averaged 9.3 million total viewers for its nightly broadcast, compared with 8.7 million for ABC and 7.3 million for CBS, according to Nielsen.
The evening broadcast has remained a stable block for NBC even as its “Today” and “Meet the Press” shows have faced challenges. As such, top executives have not focused on succession planning for the “NBC Nightly News” because it did not appear necessary. In December, the network extended Mr. Williams’s contract. The terms were reported to be as much as $10 million per year for five years.
“There is really nobody on the NBC news bench who can replace Williams in terms of his projection and presence on the nightly broadcast,” Mr. Hanley said. “Just look at the problems the ‘Today’ show had in trying to assemble a team that could reverse its fortunes there.”