New York (AFP) - One of America's most prominent TV anchors, Brian Williams, faced calls for his resignation Friday for embellishing an Iraq war story from 2003.
Williams, 55, who reportedly earns $10 million a year and is watched by an estimated nine million Americans a night, admitted that a story he often repeated on air about coming under fire was not true.
"I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," Williams said in an apology broadcast live Wednesday on the "NBC Nightly News" program he hosts each evening.
"I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft."
He apologized to colleagues again on Friday morning, according to a leaked memo purportedly from NBC News president Deborah Turness.
The memo said NBC has appointed a team to investigate the facts and "help us make sense of all that has transpired."
On Facebook, Williams said that he had "conflated" the two events, which happened while he was covering the US invasion of Iraq.
A hugely respected journalist in the United States, he has anchored "NBC Nightly News" since 2004.
Williams is a former chief White House correspondent, was celebrated for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has collected more than two dozen industry awards.
The embellished tale dates back at least to an interview with US chat show king David Letterman in 2013.
At the time of the incident in 2003, Williams said it was the Chinook ahead that was "almost blown out of the sky."
He repeated the story on television as recently as last Friday, in an elaborate tribute to a retired soldier who helped provide ground security for the grounded aircraft and crew.
But crew members of the Chinook helicopter and Williams's aircraft told Stars and Stripes, a US publication that covers the armed forces, that the anchor had been nowhere near the helicopter that was fired upon or other Chinooks in its formation.
He instead arrived later in a separate helicopter, which landed due to an oncoming sandstorm.
- Credibility under fire -
But instead of calming the controversy, Williams's on-air apology appears to have inflamed critics speaking on rival TV channels, who refuse to accept it was an honest mistake.
He also faces further scrutiny for his coverage of Katrina, in particular an account of seeing a body float face down in the French Quarter, the historic district of New Orleans.
On Friday, the Iraq story was splashed across the front pages of The New York Times, New York Post and USA Today, the latter with the headline "Brian Williams loses credibility with 'mistake.'"
"Hard to see how anchor will survive as face of NBC News," USA Today sniffed on the front page.
On NBC's rival channel Fox News, media commentator Howard Kurtz said: "The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else."
CNN television journalist Chris Cuomo stressed that "memory is either right or it is wrong and we are in the business of being righ." He predicted that the Internet would "eat him alive."
Williams was a near-constant fixture on TV as America's world turned upside down in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He reported frequently from Iraq during the invasion.
Besides Katrina, he covered the devastating tsunami in Asia in 2004 and last year got the scoop with the first US television interview with whistleblower Edward Snowden in Russia.
In December, he renewed his contract with NBC for five years. But critics have now rounded on his on-air apology, also posted on his Facebook page.
"I'm a C-130 pilot who had a surface-to-air missile shot at me in Iraq. Trust me. You will never EVER forget being shot at or 'misremember the events,'" wrote John Jacob Hunt.
Another, Mike Violette, said: "He's an out and out liar. How NBC can keep him on air is beyond me."
But prominent allies also leapt to the television star's defense.
"Revealing how some journalists, like a pack of wolves, are trying to take down Brian Williams. He apologized and set the record straight," wrote actress Mia Farrow on Twitter.
Former CBS anchor Dan Rather agreed.
"He is a superb pro and a gutsy one," he said.