Pope departs as a restrained, effective Brian Williams returns

Brian Williams' returned to MSNBC last week after being taken of the anchor chair at NBC.  (2007 AP file Photo/Matt Rourke)
Brian Williams' returned to MSNBC last week after being taken of the anchor chair at NBC.
(2007 AP file Photo/Matt Rourke)
Brian Williams' return to anchor action began last Tuesday with understatement--- “And good day, I’m Brian Williams at MSNBC headquarters here in New York”---and was matched by similar restraint at dinnertime Sunday.

"For now and all of our team of contributing correspondents, thank you for being with us," he said as Pope Francis' trek to the U.S. neared its end in Philadelphia.

In between, his fans, friends and bosses might be cheered by a solid re-emergence, especially if one is given to Francis-like empathy and relishes second chances.

Judged by initially improved MSNBC ratings, and the usual norms of assessing TV performance, his reappearance worked. But, no surprise, it comes amid the typical human reflex to project our reactions on a person as if we are that person, which unavoidably can complicate matters.

We see the experiences or others through projection, as psychologists call it. It can be toward a friend, newsmaker, celebrity or grocery checkout lady. Often, we set up an idealized version of how a person should behave and view current acts through our knowledge of past ones.

In Williams' case, some may view individual words, inflections and gestures through the lens of his bending the truth by exaggerating a helicopter mishap in Iraq. After all, he became a facile, even gratuitous punchline synonymous with fibbing.

Would there be on-air references to his escape from corporate purgatory at NBC? Would any colleague formally welcome him back? Would viewers be informed as to what exactly his new role shall be at the cable network?

NBC chose the low-key approach and dispensed with even the most veiled indirect reference to the saga's fit-for-the-tabloids history.

But projection meant at least my own cringing just a smidgen as Pope Francis arrived at a Manhattan heliport and Williams detailed his knowledge of the Sikorsky helicopter. The need to mention a helicopter, given what got him into hot water, was unfortunate if here unavoidable. Or the earlier references to what people had told him earlier that day about the tricky winds at what was long known as Andrews Air Force Base.

Had multiple people really done so? It was that projection impulse at play.

Any professional critic was launched, too, on an inevitable Hyperbole Watch. That meant monitoring anchor clichés, like his use of "north of" and "strong" (as in "400 strong."). There were benign but not especially effective attempts to be droll and connect with all of us at home; such as introducing a Pope pundit as a professor at the Catholic bastion of the University of Notre Dame, "of all places."

If you were NBC and MSNBC bosses, you had to be very relieved at how it all went. “It couldn’t have gone any better,” said MSNBC head Phil Griffin. “It was a great week. Thirty seconds in you realize how great Brian is. We missed him over the last few months."

"I love the fact that we have somebody of that stature on our air,” said Griffin, perhaps unintentionally implying that he did not already have same.

Two non-MSNBC anchor friends of mine privately asserted that many others could have done as well (assuming their Washington chops matched his). It was the sort of story, said one, where "you're going heavy on (Catholic) scholars and aren't going out of your way to be too challenging" since this was, after all, an upbeat moment. There wasn't much dwelling on the church's abuse scandal or declining membership.

But the company had to be especially grateful he was around when Friday brought both Francis in their New York backyard and the surprise resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, or a "split-screen day," as correspondent Andrea Mitchell put it.

"On a day like this where you have the sudden resignation of the House Speaker after an emotional day yesterday at the U.S. Capitol, the Pope in New York City & President Obama with the President of China, Brian Williams is able to move effortlessly between one story and another. Always with good grace, an interesting story and anecdote," Steve Scully, the stalwart C-Span host and executive, told me Friday.

"I found it interesting he knew the head of Home Depot and others greeting Pope Francis as he arrived at St. Patrick’s Cathedral last night. And often he would do what is often the very best thing to do, he stopped talking to let the scene speak for itself."

As much as Williams was on air, Scully thought his new home might have used him more. "The events this week were so complying. I would have thought NBC News would have kept him on the air all day and into the evening. They moved around to other anchors when Brian was doing so well. "

For a time, Williams won't be much of a presence, if one at all, at his old bailiwick at NBC, where he was king of the "Nightly News" hill until the big mess (there surely is a sigh of relief that ratings have remained stable with his successor, Lester Holt. Imagine the conundrum for caution-ridden executives if that were not the case).

"He's still got game," said Fuzz Hogan, managing editor at the non-partisan New America think tank and a former CNN producer and bureau chief.

For sure, it's a different world he's returned to.

"The pace and tone of daytime cable is looser than network evening news. It's a different challenge; not necessarily harder or easier, just different," said Hogan. "So, it's a question of whether he can adjust to the looser atmosphere. Watching him with Chuck Todd, who knows the looseness of daytime cable, was interesting. Chuck knows how to shift moods as he's proven on 'Meet the Press.' We don't know yet if Brian can do that when the news is slow."

For sure, it's a different species. As I tuned in and out on Saturday, amid juggling soccer and play dates and treks with the kids to the YMCA, I saw a very professional cadre serving as ringleaders at the cable channel (Chris Matthews, fully-certified Philadelphia Catholic; Vatican analyst Father Robert Barron; and weekend anchor Alex Witt were especially solid in differing roles on Saturday and Sunday).

It's a different tempo and shifting of journalistic moods and modes than on the broadcast networks' traditional evening newscasts. You have to go high and low, hard and soft, and still maintain an air of legitimacy without getting too portentous. It's not an easy set of skills (I once co-hosted an MSNBC show briefly, prompting the New York Post to declare me "the co-host from hell" after just the first darn installment; not that I remain bitter).

Will Williams make the transition? Before the return, I would have said the odds certainly were at least better than those of, say, the Cubs winning the World Series.

But, heck, as Williams was anchoring that "split-screen day" on Friday, the Cubs actually clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2008.

So maybe I should double up on him.

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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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