Barring some unexpected turn of events, Brian Williams will return to the airwaves at around 3 PM on Tuesday afternoon. (Update: Williams did go on as planned. You can read more about it at the end of this post.) The disgraced former "NBC Nightly News" anchor has been off our screens for months, ever since his habit of routinely lying about stories from his past was revealed. Like a very rich and well-connected television phoenix, though, Williams is rising from the ashes. This time, though, he's not rising quite so high; he's starting his new role as the breaking news anchor for MSNBC. His first assignment is to cover the start of Pope Francis's visit to the United States.
This turn of events may baffle those people who thought that precipitating one of the worst crises in the history of your news network would be enough to take you off of the air. But NBC has been busy laying the groundwork for Williams's very humble rebirth.
NBC News chairman Andrew Lack explained to the New York Times that Williams should be viewed as just another team player in MSNBC's efforts to re-brand itself as a home for straight news:
"The news is the star,” Mr. Lack said. “We are building a network that has as its core value delivering breaking news better than anyone else. It is not about the anchor who happens to be delivering the news.”
Lack may be trying to tell people to forget about Williams's transgressions, but his statement cuts both ways. If "the news is the star," why do you need Brian Williams to deliver it? Will there be more stringent internal checks on him, or will his humiliation be deemed enough to keep him in check?
It's quite the message to send to the poor souls at MSNBC. Kate Snow was just named to anchor the 3-5 PM slot on the network, but apparently she's not up to the extremely difficult task of saying "the pope's plane has landed" while the pope's plane lands. No, the scandal-scarred Brian Williams is needed for that kind of delicate job!
So what is going on here? There is a kind way and a less kind way to look at BriWi's return.
The kinder way is that most people don't care about what he did, and that MSNBC, whose ratings have now sunk to some pretty miserable depths, could use whatever star quality he still has to boost its profile. (This narrative is somewhat undercut by the fact that Williams does not as yet have a regular slot on MSNBC, but it's not difficult to imagine him getting one down the line.)
The less generous reading is that, yet again, a powerful man has been allowed to get away with the kinds of sins that would have sent less high-profile people to the journalistic equivalent of the firing squad. NBC News has spent a lot of money on Brian Williams that it would rather not waste. He also happens to be very old friends with Andy Lack. You do the math.
Lurking away in the background is the fact that, in recent months, NBC as a whole has shown how much Williams is not needed. His successor at the "Nightly News," Lester Holt, is regularly beating his ABC rival David Muir in the ratings, and "Today" is giving "Good Morning America" the biggest run for its money in years. Overall, NBC is competing with ABC in a way it hasn't for some time. (Full disclosure: I also work for Fusion, which is co-owned by ABC News.) Despite all of the angst around whether NBC could afford to lose such a star, the evidence shows that it gets along without him very well. So much for that, though: BriWi 2.0 looks like he's here to stay.
Update: The reboot began at 3 PM on Tuesday afternoon as scheduled. There was a "let's get down to business" air to the whole thing. Nobody mentioned the scandal. There wasn't even a "welcome back Brian" to be heard. Williams seemed slightly subdued, but that could be as much an attempt at projecting an air of no-nonsense, humble seriousness as anything else. Despite the strenuous efforts to make everything appear normal, you couldn't help but feel a certain tension in the air. Williams's return still seems baffling to people who thought that precipitating one of the worst crises in the history of your news network would be enough to take you off of the air.