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For the sake of argument, let’s take NBC News at its word. Let’s assume that Brian Williams really has been assigned to MSNBC “to strengthen its daytime coverage by further leveraging NBC News’ expertise in breaking news,” as the press release says. Goodness knows: MSNBC is the biggest single headache facing NBC News management. The cable channel needs all the help it can get.
Never mind that the decision to assign Williams to MSNBC after removing him from his Nightly News anchor chair for transgressions against the truth looks like an insult to MSNBC and its viewers: “Not truthful enough for Nightly, but good enough for MSNBC.” Williams looks like sloppy seconds.
Never mind that this second humiliation of the once-vaunted anchor — first a suspension without pay, now a demotion to the minor leagues from whence he came — appears to amount to pressure on Williams to resign of his own accord, thus relieving Comcast of the cost of buying out his extravagant contract. It certainly looked like humiliation at the end of the second part of his interview on Today with Matt Lauer, when the normally too-cool Williams had beads of sweat running down his face as he composed his own obituary: “…chastened and grateful…mindful of his mistakes…hoping for forgiveness and acceptance…”
Never mind that the reassignment is accompanied by the absence of any specifics about its rationale. Neither NBC News nor Williams himself in his interview with Lauer elaborated on the “number of inaccurate statements about his own role and experiences” found in the network’s own extensive internal review. So it conveniently avoids any accounting by management for its culpable lack of oversight of its star. As Williams confessed to Lauer: “I told stories that were not true over the years.”
Let’s, for the sake argument, give NBC News and its newly re-appointed president Andrew Lack the benefit of the doubt and assume that Williams has been reassigned as part of the plan to restore the news division to the place of preeminence it occupied when Lack was last president and, in particular, to revive the fortunes of MSNBC.
First, concerning MSNBC: Comcast, when it took over NBCUniversal, made the fateful decision to end the integration of MSNBC and NBC News on the broadcast side. It set up a Chinese wall between broadcast and cable, each with its own president, who reported in turn not to a journalist, but to Pat Fili-Krushel, an administrator. The rationale for this separation was ideological: a centrist broadcast news division would not alienate political partisans; and a liberal-progressive cable news operation would appeal explicitly to a partisan audience.
This separation was a disaster. The potential advantage of ideological clarity that it afforded turned out to have been far outweighed by its journalistic disadvantages. MSNBC has been weakened as a venue for coverage of breaking news by its diminished ability to tap the resources of NBC News. NBC News has been weakened by no longer being able to use MSNBC as a farm system to test its up-and-coming talent and as a showcase for its correspondents’ expertise.
The rehiring of Lack, with control over both broadcast and cable, was a signal that Comcast was rethinking this separation. Until the reassignment of Williams, however, he had not yet implemented important changes at MSNBC on the programing level. So, giving Lack the benefit of the doubt, this could be the first sign of reeling MSNBC’s ideology back in, reconfiguring it as a news channel rather than a politics channel. Hence Williams’ reference — to my ear a disingenuous one — to his cable roots as a breaking news anchor in the second part of the Lauer interview, claiming that when viewers stop him in the street they remind him of his coverage of the TWA 800 crash or the death of Lady Diana.
By the way, while he is at it, it would behoove Lack also to reincorporate CNBC into the NBC News fold. As an independent channel, CNBC has scaled back on its coverage of the macro-economy, monetary, fiscal and trade issues. Instead it has become a talking shop for stock touts and day traders. When the global financial system collapsed in 2008, the coverage at NBC News was superior because it could call on the economists, financial reporters and banking experts of CNBC. Lack should want them available again for when the next crisis happens.
Second, concerning Williams: let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, too, and accept his explanation that it was the celebrity spotlight — the occasions when he was away from the newsroom — that made him tell stories that made him seem “sharper, funnier, quicker” than he actually is. The urge to show off in a show-business environment “came from a bad place…a bad urge inside of me,” he confessed to Lauer. In the most convoluted phrase of the interview, Williams described the phenomenon as “my ego getting the better of me.”
In the announcement of Williams’ reassignment to MSNBC there was no mention that he would have to stay away from the environment that made him stray from the truth. No more late-night talk-show couches. No more slow-jammin’ the news. No more Saturday Night Live skits. No more college commencement addresses. No more New York Rangers games with decorated veterans.
The best way for a news organization to promote its journalism is journalistically, not through celebrity stunts. Williams the late-night-raconteur was a counterproductive image for an anchor, even if had been scrupulous with the truth while telling his anecdotes. If, when he is out of the newsroom he is also out of the celebrity spotlight, that will be good-faith evidence that he has found a way to resist the “bad urge inside me” to deviate from the truth. It will also make NBC News as a whole seem more trustworthy.
Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and author of The Tyndall Report.
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