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Brian Williams' future: Questions remain as his 'NBC Nightly News' scandal recedes

Questions remain about Brian Williams' future at NBC

Questions remain about Brian Williams' future at NBC and MSNBC. Credit: NBC News/Today Show

With Brian Williams now receding in our rearview mirror -- last week he was named breaking news anchor in charge of special events coverage for MSNBC, set to begin in August -- does this mean that noisy, wrenching, endless disgraced anchor saga is finally over?

No. (Sorry). Questions remain.

Here's a brief sampling...


Did Williams help his case with his "Today" show interview on Friday?

To those who wish to absolve him, yes. But to those who do not -- including some at NBC News -- not even close. The anti-Williamists (is there such a thing?) who thought he should be fired in the first place wanted nothing short of this -- "I lied" -- which he was not about to offer. Meanwhile,he offered up other rhetorical flourishes that felt glib or pre-cooked (and yes, there were even rumors circulating at NBC the interview was taped twice...). Stuff like "the black box recordings of my career;" or those people who "still"come up to him to say he was with them the night Princess Di was killed; or "I own it, I own up to it."

 Anyway, don't expect any more interviews for a while.


What does "breaking news anchor" for MSNBC mean, exactly?

Really, what is "breaking news" anyway? You see it plastered on cable news network stories constantly. If there's a car chase in Memphis, that's "breaking," so will the breaking news anchor be on hand to explain this? Breaking news -- both major and picayune -- can happen anytime because the world, after all, is on a 24-hour news cycle. Sounds like a long workday for the new anchor. Expect these details to be worked out in August.


What does "special events" mean?

Williams will also handle "special events" coverage at MSNBC. "Special," of course, indicates an elevated status of something important, such as the mass shootings in Charleston. It can also comprise "in-depth" analysis, perhaps, of a major breaking news story. Does this mean -- and it probably does -- that in the event of such a tragedy, Williams then takes over the MSNBC primetime hours to orchestrate coverage of the story? Or, perhaps, does he even go to the scene of the story -- the itinerant anchor often being the sine qua non of "special event" coverage?

If indeed "yes"  to both, that's when this role gets complicated. Lester Holt -- the new anchor of "Nightly News" -- will be doing the same thing, which means both anchors will compete for the same resources, and will even duplicate roles to some extent.

Plus, they'll compete for viewers: That could be a real advantage for Williams, possibly even the point that sold him on the "demotion" in the first place, because he will be able to go with wall-to-wall coverage, while Holt has to "dump" out of coverage to return to regular programming (viewers get cranky when "The Blacklist" is interrupted).

So let's call this "special events" facet the potential win-win for Williams, a potential headache for Holt.


Will Williams cover politics?

Of course! There's an election coming (never mind that insiders say he doesn't like politics), and, of course he'll be chasing news and interviews just like Holt will -- a reason this "breaking news/special events" business might be where Williams sees an opportunity to get himself back in front of the camera, and possibly even upstage his replacement. As longtime viewers know, Williams is good at getting in front of a hot camera and talking...and talking some more.


How will Williams cover veterans affairs?

In a breaking news situation -- and there will be many concerning the military -- he will be required to speak to generals, other officers, paid consultants and veterans. His own unfortunate history regarding embellishments and of what some military critics called an instance of "borrowed valor" may recede with time. But it'll be immensely awkward at the outset.


Could the move to MSNBC be one of those temporizing strategies that allows him to buy a couple of years, then leave NBC altogether?

That's certainly possible, but I actually believe both NBC and Williams want this to work. In any case, you can spot a star who wants to ride out a contract pretty quickly and we should be able to here. Foremost, they start to do stories you suspect have been presented to them with an ultimatum ("do this story or else..."). They seem a little out of sorts, less upbeat than usual. You suspect they are miserable. They are.

Put it this way: When Williams does his first "breaking news" story on Jim Bob and MIchelle Duggar, which then leads to a primetime "special events" documentary on "19 Kids and Counting," that could be an indication he's hiding this one out. may be EXACTLY the sort of story Williams wants to do -- big ratings, lots of attention, and primetime traction for MSNBC. The overall idea here, don't forget, isn't just to rebuild Williams but rebuild MSNBC.


Is the move to MSNBC a stalking horse for some other -- more elevated -- role at NBC?

If Williams got good advice -- I assume he did -- then the answer is certainly affirmative. If penance at MSNBC lasts a couple of years, he does a good job, the helicopter embellishment story fades, along with viewer memories, then....

Maybe something else presents itself. A role on "Today"? (even though interviews aren't his strong suit and maybe mornings aren't either). A production deal? A primetime series on MSNBC? (Substitute host for Jimmy Fallon?)

The point here is: Time could be his ally. Maybe the future is what he makes it, and the future is what this is all about.


Could he ever return to "Nightly News" as a substitute?

Highly unlikely, but...NBC did offer the slightest hint of a return in this press release line: "In addition, Williams will serve as a breaking news anchor for NBC News live special reports when Holt is not available..."  This sounds like something Williams and his representatives wanted all along -- the camel's-nose-in-the-tent possibility, or that propitious moment when Williams is allowed to leave the relative Siberia of MSNBC for the warm glow of network primetime.

But what if Holt is not around at 6:30 for some reason (he was on vacation last week, after all)?. Will "Today" co-anchor Savannah Guthrie be his chief stand-in, or -- if Williams has been handling breaking coverage of a specific story anyway -- will he get the call?

 (Expect Holt to be "available" for a long time to come).


Finally, should NBC News release the report on Williams?

The biggest and most urgent question deserves the most urgent and unequivocal answer: Yes.

NBC News completed an extensive audit of Williams' work, finding a number of inaccurate statements, then dismissed his it all with this rhetorical wave of the wand: "The statements in question did not for the most part occur on NBC News platforms or in the immediate aftermath of the news events, but rather on late-night programs and during public appearances, usually years after the news events in question."

NBC News isn't releasing the report, but why?

If "most" of the stuff was off-air, then nothing to worry about, right? And if all this is about giving Williams his "second chance" and rebuilding his career, wouldn't full disclosure be the first step in the process? By not releasing specifics, skeptics are emboldened, free to speculate about the magnitude of those "inaccuracies," or the frequency of them.

In last week's interview, Matt Lauer offered this accurate appraisal about the report, or rather Williams's reluctance of "set the record straight": "We live in a world where people are not just going to let this rest." True indeed.

From an ethically journalistic standpoint, NBC News certainly should release the report -- news organizations demand transparency of those they cover, and NBC News should demand transparency of itself in this instance.

Moreover, by not releasing the report, NBC News itself comes under suspicion -- was the report initiated to "clear the air," or used as a negotiating wedge against Williams? Perhaps both?

Could the full report or portions even be leaked at some point? (Some details already have been.) If by leaks, that's the death of a thousand cuts, with collateral damage conceivably extending to NBC News.

Full disclosure isn't the best policy here. It should be the only one.

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