Disgraced Brian Williams Seeks 'Redemption' at MSNBC: 'Bad Precedent for Journalism'

Brian Williams, who spent 10 years as the anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News weekday program, and MSNBC, a cable affiliate known for its liberal slant and perpetually low ratings, are combining their forces in an effort to improve their standing in the cable news battle during the 2016 presidential contest.

Williams was suspended from his prestigious post in 2015, when it was discovered that he had repeated false stories on late-night talk shows about taking fire in a Chinook helicopter during an incident he described as “Black Hawk Down meets Saving Private Ryan.”

According to an article by Tom Risen -- a technology and business reporter for the U.S. News & World Report -- Rachel Maddow ended a nightly broadcast of her MSNBC show last June by announcing that Brian Williams would be joining the cable network as a breaking news anchor, a post similar to that of Shepard Smith on the Fox News Channel.

While acknowledging that Williams had been “under a cloud of controversy,” she said she was “happy” that he was willing to be a breaking news “workhorse” at the network.

Risen's story concluded with Syracuse professor Robert Thompson:

Whether or not bringing Williams back to the news desk is good for MSNBC, Thompson says it is a bad precedent for journalism.

“It makes it easier the next time another network want to do this,” he says. “They can tell people ‘everyone deserves a second chance,’ because NBC gave Brian Williams a second chance.”

Risen reported:

Not everyone was as forgiving about NBCUniversal keeping Williams on staff after his fall from grace that led the company to fact check more than 10 years of his stories and public appearances for inaccuracies.

The results of the internal investigation were never made public, but the network reportedly identified up to 11 examples when Williams bent the truth about his reporting experiences.

Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources program that reports on the media business, says there is “a divide” at NBC about whether Williams was treated too leniently because of his fame.

“Some of my sources at MSNBC say Brian Williams’ past doesn’t matter, and people have moved on,” Stelter noted. “I personally know people in the media business who refuse to watch him and think he never should have been allowed to come back, and other people who don’t care about the scandal.”

“Yet Williams immersed himself in his new role” last week, Risen stated, “appearing on camera on Tuesday for a total of 11 hours, anchoring coverage of the terrorist attack in Brussels throughout the day before joining Maddow to review primary elections that evening -- a far cry from his 30-minute broadcasts on the NBC Nightly News.”

“Putting Williams at the anchor desk during big news moments is part of MSNBC’s effort to shed its reputation for non-stop liberal talk shows by covering more breaking news,” he added, “and it’s helping the third-place cable network slowly gain ground against its rivals CNN (Cable News Network) and Fox News.”

Risen continued:

MSNBC is in a distant third place during evening prime-time programming against its cable news rivals, as CNN in recent weeks has drawn twice as many night-time viewers while Fox News sometimes attracts four times as many people to watch its nightly opinion shows, according to Nielsen ratings.

Daytime programming at MSNBC for the first quarter of this year, however, is on track to generate its highest ratings since the start of 2013. Daytime audiences at MSNBC this quarter have grown 81 percent compared with the first quarter of 2015, faster than CNN’s 22 percent rise during daytime or Fox News'14 percent growth since the same quarter last year.

“It is difficult to measure how much Williams has spurred this modest growth,” Risen asserted, “since he is covering breaking news during various times of day whenever a major event happens, instead of headlining a show during a specific time slot."

Nevertheless, Williams' erratic schedule is part of a “soft relaunch” strategy to slowly reintroduce him to viewers in the wake of his scandal.

“The election year is increasing ratings for all cable news networks, but going from talking about politics to covering politics is giving MSNBC a boost,” Risen noted.

That's a boost the liberal channel needs after losing shows hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry and replacing them with Caucasian anchors.

Nevertheless, Stelter noted that while “viewers don’t come for the star, they come for the news,” Williams brings the calm approach of a traditional news anchor that contrasts with the bombastic atmosphere of the network’s opinion shows.

“Williams’ first six months as MSNBC’s new anchor are also notable because they show his willingness to step down from the prime-time mountaintop to the cable network he anchored from 1996 to 2004,” Risen stated.

But as NewsBusters previously reported, the NBC newsman still doesn't have much in the way of self-awareness. On February 1, 2016, while waiting for Iowa's caucus returns, Williams proclaimed himself to be the “purveyor of truth and justice.”

With that comment in mind, let's hope Williams isn't a guest on any late-night talk show at least until after the November election.

Randy Hall
Randy Hall