Television’s most elegant and articulate anchor, who shepherds what is arguably the nation’s most informative nightly news program, continues to toil in relative obscurity.
It’s not that viewership for Brian Williams’s 11 p.m. ET program on MSNBC is tiny; it reaches nearly two million people on an average night. It’s that the broadcast from which Williams was exiled four years ago, “NBC Nightly News,” attracts a dinner-hour audience that is roughly four times as large.
Williams was prone to exaggerating stories in which he was personally involved - most notably one involving a mission in Iraq, in which he claimed his helicopter was hit by enemy fire. As a result he became one of the few national TV anchors to be disciplined for what in today’s lexicon might be called “fake news.”
He apologized on air, saying, “I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers and I’m determined to earn back their trust.”
The network suspended Williams for six months and then eased him into the role he now occupies at MSNBC, hosting “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” five nights a week. Depending on how you look at it, he is either the luckiest man in media, having been given a second chance to do what he loves most, or the saddest, knowing that he is one of TV’s best players, stuck in its minor leagues.
As a broadcaster and journalist, I was repulsed by what Brian Williams did - to himself and his profession. I was skeptical when NBC gave him a new perch, recalling how acclaimed anchor Dan Rather received no such opportunity at CBS News after he took part in controversial reporting in 2004 about President George W. Bush’s military record. The best Rather could do to salvage his career was to sign on with a lower-tier cable channel called AXS.
And now, in an age of presidential exaggerations and outright lies, at a time when cable commentators regularly blur the line between fact an opinion, in an era when the public’s trust in news media polls at alarmingly low levels, why should viewers put their faith in Brian Williams? Because he remains the best at what he does and because he does it at a time when the nation needs it most.
“The 11th Hour” succeeds in two areas where most other news programs - on both cable and broadcast - fall short.
The first is managing to summarize the day’s important news without burdening viewers, especially late at night, with material that they feel they have already absorbed via instant digital feeds. The three legacy evening news broadcasts on NBC, CBS and ABC fail here. While retaining a sizeable combined audience of over 20 million people, they are relics of an era when news flowed at a slower pace.
The second is providing analysis without overt commentary. Cable’s major news players, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, have increasingly pushed their prime-time hosts into the roles of commentators. CNN’s capable host Don Lemon is an example of this unfortunate Peter Principle, which has Lemon diverting from his real skill as a reporter and moderator to deliver a nightly opinion piece, which is hardly his strength.
Brian Williams gets right to the news, and then turns to a stable of panelists who are not usually pundits but rather top-line print reporters from major papers and news services, who have just filed their stories for the next morning. These practitioners deliver analysis without a specific political orientation. Williams, himself, acts as inquisitor without injecting too much opinion.
Watching at 8 p.m. in California, knowing that many of my East Coast friends and colleagues have retired for the night, I wonder if “The 11th Hour” should perhaps be shifted to “The 8th Hour,” as a centerpiece of MSNBC’s prime-time schedule. Then again, the program might be successful, in part, because of its timeslot - as was Ted Koppel’s beautifully crafted “Nightline” on ABC, back when Koppel helped invent it in 1980.
This much I know: Brian Williams will never rival Walter Cronkite as “the most trusted man in America.” Yet, he has managed to reinvent himself to give us what might be the most trustworthy news program on television.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.