MSNBC Using Disgraced Brian Williams’ Gravitas to Seek Redemption for Its Credibility

Brian Williams speaks to the crowd during a presidential debate between President Barack Obama and current Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, on Feb. 26, 2008, in Cleveland.
Brian Williams speaks to the crowd during a presidential debate between President Barack Obama and current Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, on Feb. 26, 2008, in Cleveland.

Rachel Maddow ended a nightly broadcast of her MSNBC show last June by announcing Brian Williams would be joining the cable network as a breaking news anchor months after being removed from hosting NBC Nightly News “under a cloud of controversy.” Maddow said that “in multiple instances he had not told the truth about his experiences covering the news” in places like Iraq, but added “I believe in redemption,” and that she was “happy” that Williams was willing to be a breaking news “workhorse” at the cable network. 

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 where Williams bent the truth about his reporting experiences.

Brian Stelter, the 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, adding “some of the folks involved with the investigation were really horrified by what they found.”

“Some of my sources at MSNBC say Brian Williams’ past doesn’t matter and people have moved on,” Stelter says. “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 this week, 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 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 – and it’s helping the third place cable network slowly gain ground against its rivals CNN and Fox News. Williams was also a constant presence during President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba.

MSNBC is in a distant third place during evening primetime programming against its cable news rivals, as CNN in recent weeks has drawn twice as many nighttime 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, 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. 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.

Stelter says 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.

“In the initial ratings I don’t see a lot of evidence that he is supercharging MSNBC ratings, nor is he a turnoff,” Stelter says. “Williams brings gravitas, expertise and energy. He brings a steadiness that might have been missing before.”

Williams’ first six months as MSNBC’s new anchor are also notable because it shows his willingness to step down from the prime time mountaintop to the cable network where he anchored from 1996 to 2004. Along with doing hours of breaking news coverage that are sometimes delegated to junior broadcasters earning their stripes, Williams is anchoring for a cable network that often attracts an audience 10 percent the size generated by NBC Nightly News. Williams is not making a huge sacrifice, however: his salary at MSNBC is reportedly close to $10 million per year, down from his former salary at NBC when he made up to $15 million annually. MSNBC declined to comment on his compensation.

Despite the modest success of Williams’ work on MSNBC, the network has given him relatively little publicity. Williams has reported only from studio desks since returning to broadcasting, he has not interviewed presidential candidates or spoken on a late night TV show. This is part of a “soft relaunch” strategy to slowly reintroduce him to viewers in the wake of his scandal, says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

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Source: US News & World Report | Tom Risen