Is going to MSNBC a blessing in disguise for Brian Williams?

Brian Williams (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
Brian Williams (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
The challenge for Brian Williams and his bosses is clear: going from the butt of derision to a face of MSNBC.

“You don’t throw out the baby with the bath water because the water is soiled,” said an NBC anchor to me Thursday

Reports surfaced late Wednesday that he’d not return to his evening anchor post. On Thursday came a formal corporate announcement that he’ll do “breaking news” at the cable channel. Meanwhile, he taped an interview with colleague and “Today” co-host Matt Lauer, which will air Friday.

Ultimately, the decision was inevitable even if it suggests a distinction without a difference.

For his bosses, the evening anchor job at the broadcast network is too high profile, there’s too much advertising money on the table and it wasn’t worth the risk of viewer and internal derision.

That was especially so, in their minds, with ratings not changing appreciably with a capable back-up, Lester Holt, who’ll assume the post permanently. And it was despite the well-chronicled erosion of network news audiences and the declining cachet of prime time anchors, who seem to be an increasingly interchangeable commodity.

Far more ambiguous was what, if any, role he would have. But even that eventuality was essentially tipped at the time of his suspension.

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke originally said, “"His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate." As relevant, he underscored how, "He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me, and he is committed to winning back everyone's trust."

The last several months have included fitful negotiations over what to do with him. Those were complicated by an internal NBC investigation into the possibility of dishonest remarks beyond those relating to Iraq War coverage that led to the six-month suspension.

That investigation apparently raised other questions but, in the minds of Burke and others, did not alter the notion of a second chance. Meanwhile, a frustrated Williams sat at home, wanting his old job back and being unable to respond to what amounts to national ridicule as a facile synonym for confabulation or outright deceit.

In my talking to current and former NBC executives and mid-level personnel in recent months, MSNBC struck many (not all) as an obvious alternative.

It’s confronting fairly uninspired ratings and a sense of editorial drift after positioning itself successfully as a left-leaning alternative to Fox News, the cable news top dog.

Talk and punditry tend to far outpace hard news. It doesn’t have enough compelling hosts, while the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton lessen its credibility except among ideologues of the left. The journalism chops of many hosts are modest.

Williams is being paid a fortune ($10 million a year by most accounts) because he’s highly capable, especially with breaking news. In the minds of NBC executives, they are getting him back to work, and something in return for their huge investment, without the same glare.

It might seem a distinction without a difference. If he’d lost your trust to be the prime time anchor on NBC, are your standards and your obligation to viewers somehow different on MSNBC?

Is going to MSNBC akin to the Yankees, Dodgers or Orioles sending an injured or inexperienced player down to the minors for rehabilitation? It sure seems like that.

If a story like the tragic Charleston, South Carolina, church shootings unfolds, he might just be front and center for perhaps hours on MSNBC; probably having a far higher profile than on the broadcast network (assuming it didn’t cut into soap operas and prime time entertainment to actually cover Charleston).

Especially for a younger generation of viewers, there is no difference between the two networks. It’s all television.

In talking Thursday to some NBC rank and filers, including one anchor, they conceded that his return to the office would be very awkward.

But two high-profile colleagues told me the same thing: He does breaking news better than Holt. They both love Holt but conceded that as good as he is, he’s not quite in the same class when it comes to certain skills.

Of course, status in the vanity-filled world of TV is also conferred by financial rewards. And several people noted that Williams’ far greater salary than Holt’s could be a tricky matter.

But that is a matter for NBC executives, who deserve blame for what even some Williams partisans suggest is a lack of supervision of him over the years.

An image of occasional rhetorical hyperbole was not simply of recent vintage. But Williams, like Tom Brokaw before him, was a de facto 800-pound gorilla internally and apparently nobody confronted the suspicions head-on.

For sure, some will argue that Williams has sullied journalism and should ply a different trade. One prominent ethicist demurred Thursday.

“If NBC decides that a suspension and demotion are sufficient punishment for Williams' actions, and if they are willing to let him work to rebuild both their and audience trust in him, then that seems a perfectly reasonable decision for it to make, regardless of how others might have acted,” said Jeff Seglin of Harvard’s Kennedy School. “It's NBC's decision to make.”

“Ultimately, it's up to the company to decide the appropriate punishment and for the public to decide whether or not to tune into, read, or take that person seriously from here on out---and for the person to understand how hard he will have to work to restore his credibility.”

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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