Is this a joke? It appears that Brian Williams will soon reappear, but not at his old job as the anchor of the “NBC Nightly News.” On Wednesday night Brian Stelter of CNN wrote, “So what will [Brian] Williams do? His portfolio will include a position on MSNBC, NBC’s struggling cable news channel. ‘He will be the face of MSNBC,’ handling big breaking news stories, one of the people said on condition of anonymity.”
Likewise, in The New York Times, Emily Steel, John Koblin and Ravi Somaiya wrote on Wednesday night, “Mr. Williams is expected to move to a new role at NBC News, primarily at the cable news network MSNBC, which would probably be in a breaking-news capacity at the beginning, according to one of the people.”
So let me get this right: NBC honchos Steve Burke and Andy Lack don’t think Williams has enough credibility to anchor NBC’s flagship nightly newscast, but they want him to be the face of its struggling cable news channel, MSNBC, because … because what? Because it’s not enough that it’s struggling, they want to make it a real laughingstock?
Clearly, if they think Williams doesn’t have the trustworthiness, the believability, to retake the reins of “Nightly News,” why would he be the person to build MSNBC into some news juggernaut?
And why would Williams do it? He’s been there, done that, also under Lack, not long after MSNBC launched almost 20 years ago, when he left the White House beat to anchor “The News with Brian Williams” on the nascent MSNBC. Does he really need the money?
So what should Williams be doing? One clue would be something that he really wants to do. And, interestingly, we get that clue from a piece Gabriel Sherman wrote several months ago, on March 8, 2015, in New York Magazine:
“Although he seemed genetically bred to be a newscaster—with that perfect almond hair, a jutting jaw, and a commanding yet calming baritone—Williams had, in recent years, developed ambitions to do more than read a teleprompter for 22 minutes a night. To the surprise of many, he had pulled off an unlikely second act as an entertainer. He parried penis jokes with Jon Stewart, slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, confidently hosted ‘SNL,’ and played ‘Brian Williams’ on ’30 Rock.’ ‘I love late-night comedy,’ he told a friend last year. For one recent birthday, Jane Williams arranged for her husband to take the stage with members of Upright Citizens Brigade. ‘Tim Russert always used to say, “Brian would have been a better Chevy Chase than Chevy Chase,” ’ recalled a former NBC producer.
“… A few years ago, Williams told Burke he wanted to take over the ‘Tonight Show’ from Jay Leno. Burke dismissed the idea and instead offered Williams a weekly prime-time program called ‘Rock Center.’ Williams hoped it might develop into a variety show. But ‘Rock Center’ ended up more like a softer ‘60 Minutes,’ and it was canceled after two middling seasons. Undeterred, Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman, according to a high-level source, but Moonves wasn’t interested. (CBS declined to comment.)”
Let’s indulge Williams. Seriously. Or, I guess, humorously. Jon Stewart, a comic and the nation’s designated liberal to pointedly attack all sorts of political nonsense with a logic and finesse that is often laugh-out-loud funny, is leaving in August. Why can’t Williams do his version of what Stewart does, but do it for MSNBC. If a success it could become that network’s signature show. I don’t know what would work for Williams, or if the public would buy it, but there is a precedent for someone who can go back and forth between doing newsmaker interviews seriously and skewering newsmakers satirically: the late David Frost.
Frost, an Englishman who died two years ago at age 74, was a tenacious interviewer and master satirist. The latter was on display most noticeably in the 1960s in a fondly remembered comic news revue called “That Was the Week That Was,” which Frost first did in the U.K, and then in an American version on … NBC. It was live, weekly, from New York, a precursor to, among other shows, “SNL.”
For those of you who don’t remember “That Was the Week That Was” — which was affectionately referred to as “TW3” — here’s a description of that series from the indispensable “Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows” by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh:
“The satire could be very brutal. In one scene two good friends, a Catholic and a Jew, were discussing the fact that the Vatican had just exonerated the Jews from responsibility for Jesus’ death. Well, they were off the hook for that one, after 2,000 years, but no, the Jew still could not join the Catholic’s country club — that one hadn’t been worked out yet. Then there was the news report from Jackson, Mississippi, where UN paratroopers had just been dropped by Guatemalan Air Force planes, to rescue Negro ministers, missionaries, and civil rights workers. The musical numbers were no less offensive.”
Perhaps hosting or anchoring some sort of 21st century version of “TW3” would turn out to be Williams’ forte.
First, though, I think he must address, in some public forum, the issues about what got him in trouble in the first place. Besides the actual incident of Williams claiming to be on a helicopter that was shot at when he was not on that helicopter — which led to his suspension — there have been other incidents subsequently talked about in the press.
Perhaps the best way for Williams to address these issues is to convene a special forum, let’s say at a big auditorium on the campus of Columbia University in New York, presented under the auspices of the Columbia School of Journalism. Williams could say that for the next two hours he will address any questions put to him by a combination of the faculty of the journalism school and its students. It would be broadcast live on the Internet and also by any broadcast or cable network that wanted to pick up the feed, for free.
Back in 2007, Williams was the first network news anchor to host “SNL.” At the time our good friend (and former TVWeek columnist), TV critic Tom Shales, wrote in The Washington Post, “While it wasn’t the most hilarious ‘Saturday Night Live’ ever done, the ‘mission accomplished’ banner can probably be raised insofar as Williams’ image goes. He was able to keep his dignity and get laughs, too — especially when spoofing himself and his need to keep his dignity, ironically enough. One of the funniest bits was an ‘SNL Digital Short’ purporting to show a day in the life of the anchor; his activities included making a gushing phone call to himself, standing outside the building and waiting for someone to recognize him, and, later, dropping pennies from a window in the GE Building onto Al Roker and Matt Lauer as they attempted to do the ‘Today’ show far below in Rockefeller Plaza.”
Shales added, “During his opening monologue Williams said that both he and the audience were probably wondering, ‘Now, is this really a good idea?’ Happily for all concerned, it turns out that it was.”
Is going back to MSNBC a good idea for Williams? Not if it’s just to try to become the hard news face of that network when they still don’t trust him to anchor NBC’s “Nightly News.” But perhaps it is a good idea if he can move forward and successfully pull off doing a modern-day “TW3” kind of show.