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For NBC, the timing couldn't be worse. Brian Willams, anchor of its "Nightly News" broadcast, has been in the hot seat since last week after veteran Lance Reynolds disputed his claim of being under enemy fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Sorry dude, I don't remember you being on my aircraft," Reynolds posted on NBC's Facebook page, prompted by a video showing Williams and a retiring soldier he said helped guard him and his crew after his helicopter was hit.

Williams apologized, posting that the "fog of memory" made him conflate the details. He also apologized on his newscast and took himself off the air for a few days (weekend anchor Lester Holt stepped in for him Monday and Tuesday nights.) Williams canceled an appearance on "The David Letterman Show" scheduled for Thursday.

The network is in a tough position, Detroit media watchers say, because "NBC Nightly News" has been topping the ratings most weeks, while the rest of its schedule struggles. On Friday, two days after Williams' apology, ABC's "World News Tonight" beat "Nightly News" with 8.46 million viewers to less than 8 million for NBC.

February is a crucial ratings period for networks, said Matt Friedman, a former news producer at NBC's WDIV-TV (Channel 4) and co-owner of the Tanner-Friedman public relations/marketing firm.

"He's going to be off the air in February when their ratings count nationally," Friedman said. "Can they live without Brian Williams in that slot?"

Others wonder if NBC News' reputation can survive with him.

Mike Lewis recently retired as a journalism professor, after stints as an investigator reporter at WDIV and The Detroit News' Lansing bureau.

His favorite class to teach at Oakland University was Journalistic Ethics, "which some people used to call an oxymoron," Lewis quipped.

"In class, we'd talk about lying," Lewis said. "Doctors have the standard to do no harm. Well, journalists are supposed to tell no lies. That's the ethics of our profession. So I guess when you're in the truth business, telling lies is bad for business, even if you think they're little white lies. It's the perfect example of the harm a little white lie causes."

The fact that social media forced NBC and Williams to revisit the incident and his account of it isn't lost on many. It's hard to hide behind a corporate shield when journalists are so easily reached — and shamed.

"These military guys initially took to Facebook, their recourse, to talk about this, that's how it got going," Friedman said. "There was no Facebook in 2003, not for the mainstream, so a lot of these guys were walking around with this for 12 years. It begs the question, would this have manifested if not for social media? It allows consumers to be watchdogs, to some extent. That can be powerful."

"Once there's blood in the water, in social media, that's it," said the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics. She's seen the memes online showing Williams Photoshopped into photos with Abraham Lincoln and other historical figures.

"As mean-spirited as that is, it's a funny and healthy way for people to respond," McBride said. "You see him on the moon, you see him with the Beatles. That's hysterical. What Brian Williams did, he told the war story, and war stories take on a certain mythology because they tend to get over-simplified and blown out of proportion. That's why we put quotes around them."

On the other hand, "He's paid to sort the war stories out from the real facts," she said. "NBC is, frankly, making a financial calculation right now: Is it better to take a hit to their credibility and try to let him regain that, or is it better to get someone new in the anchor chair? Neither one is a great option."

Why would Williams be so reckless as to repeat such an easily-debunked story?

"Most of the top network anchors had Washington experience and then overseas experience," said Lewis, who's studied network news anchors.

"Starting with Edward R. Murrow and going down the list. Murrow was reporting from the rooftops of London during World War II. I just wonder if Williams is a bit of a lightweight, more of a late-night comedy guy than a 'rooftops of London under the blitzkrieg bombs' kind of guy."

The affable Williams, whose newscast tops the ratings most weeks, has courted fans through his many appearances on late-night TV, slow-jamming the news for Jimmy Fallon and swapping jokes with David Letterman.

Can his anchor chair be saved? Maybe, although Friedman sees it as a major PR failure on NBC's part, starting with Williams talking about the incident with no direction from his bosses. Like his peers, Williams has the title of "managing editor" as well as anchor, which means the producer who is checking the facts on his story also reports to Williams.

"Within an hour after the news breaking, (Williams) was on TV talking about himself, that's how much a demonstration of how much power these anchors have over their broadcasts," Friedman said.

Williams didn't offer an out-and-out apology either, Friedman said. "How come he just can't come on and admit that he made a mistake? But the time to do that would have been last Wednesday night. He started to do that, then didn't follow through.

"And NBC's been quiet. If they decide to keep him, there will have to be a major PR offensive to convince the public that he's sorry and that he's not going to do this anymore."

McBride said she believes the public could forgive Williams' lapse, with time.

"I guess the way that you do that is, you're contrite and you're honest, and you continue to do a body of work that demonstrates your dedication to accuracy. The big question is whether NBC will let him do that."

Former newsman and ethics professor Lewis doesn't buy it.

"If the facts prove that he lied and lied repeatedly about even little stuff, they've got to cut him loose. Who's going to believe anything NBC News reports?"

swhitall@detroitnews.com

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