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Brian Williams Prepares To Return To TV News


This week, for the first time in more than seven months, Brian Williams will be back on TV doing the news. NBC had suspended Brian Williams from his anchor job at the "Nightly News" in February because of a series of half true and embellished stories Williams had told. You might remember the one about flying in a helicopter dodging bullets from the Iraqi military. Well, on Tuesday, Williams will be starting at a new job at MSNBC, the cable channel. To talk about this we've got NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik on the line. Hi, David.


RATH: So this sounds good for Brian Williams, but what about NBC? What does the network have to gain by giving Brian Williams another chance?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you could argue there are two things; one very specific and one much larger. The specific thing is, of course, he had a big contract, and it just had been extended last year. And this gets them out of having some sort of messy litigation or negotiation to pay him off to go away without raising a huge stink. The larger issue is that strategically, Brian Williams, even damaged, is one of the biggest names and one of the best-known properties NBC News has to offer. You know, he's been somebody that they promoted. He's been on the air in front of millions of people, five times a week for over a decade. He's been their main guy for many, many years. And so the idea of simply exiling him in total for what were things that he largely did - although not entirely - but largely did off the air seemed, to many people internally at NBC, disproportionate and self-damaging to the network.

RATH: Now, he's not going to be an anchor. Could you explain what his role is going to be? This is on MSNBC, not on NBC proper.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, so take his first day, which is Tuesday the 22, at least that's the plan. He's going to be there to help prepare the network and viewers for the visit of the pope. He's going to be on tap as a breaking news anchor to explain both what's happening, what's known and also to help them understand the context of that, guide them through interviews with correspondents and experts and really take them through things until it seems fit to them to return to regularly scheduled programs and the anchors that host those shows.

RATH: Now, MSNBC has been going through a lot of other changes. It's been called a reboot. Can you talk about the new Brian Williams role the context of that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, just as they've been trying to figure out a role for Brian Williams, they've been figuring out to do - what do you do with a problem like MSNBC? They're going to make MSNBC, at least during the daytime, much more of an NBC News cable channel, as opposed to, you know, emulating a left-of-center version of what Fox had done so well from the right.

RATH: Right now, with Brian Williams, it seems like disgraced journalist has just become attached to his name. Can he ever really shed that, make a full comeback?

FOLKENFLIK: This will be always part of the equation, part of the definition of Brian Williams. This will haunt him, which I think he feared very much. But he and NBC ultimately decided they didn't want that to be the final chapter to his NBC career and possibly to his journalistic career. And I think there is the opportunity for viewers to decide that they do trust him. I mean, he's somebody they're incredibly familiar with, and he's very good at the studio role. This is really one of his strengths as opposed to, say sit-down interviews with heads of state. He wasn't known particularly for investigative or crusading journalism. And a studio worker things where, although it's a journalistic role, it's a highly performative role. And I think viewers may decide that they're comfortable with this familiar voice even if he's taken a gut punch, and a self-inflicted wound at that.

RATH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.
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