CYA At 30 Rock…

Well, it happened. Lester Holt was named permanent Nightly News anchor and Brian Williams was named MSNBC breaking news floater. No, I don’t know what that means for MSNBC…and neither probably does NBC at this stage. FTVLive posted NBC’s full release which I will quote and comment liberally from…

“Lester has done outstanding work for NBC News over the last ten years, and he’s performed remarkably well over the last few months under very tough circumstances,” Lack said. “He’s an exceptional anchor who goes straight to the heart of every story and is always able to find its most direct connection to the everyday lives of our audience. In many ways, television news stands at a crossroads, and Lester is the perfect person to meet the moment.”

But unlike David Muir and Scott Pelley (not to mention a bunch of anchors who came before them) Holt will not be Managing Editor. This is not a trivial matter. Managing Editor controls the content and shapes the focus of the newscast. Most anchors want that title because they know instinctively it’s their ass on the firing line. The newscast, rightly or wrongly, is viewed as their show by the public. If something goes wrong on it, they catch the flak…they have to apologize. So if you are going to be the face of the network on its flagship newscast you tend to want to own it since you’ll be the first to catch heat if there’s a problem and be the first one everyone looks to for an explanation.

NBC didn’t give Holt that. Maybe he didn’t want it (and if he didn’t I want to hear that he didn’t). Instead NBC gave Holt all the responsibility of keeping the newscast on top but without giving him the responsibility of making sure it does. If something goes wrong now, Holt will catch the flak but it won’t necessarily be his fault. That depends of course on what the nature of the flak is. But if the flak is due to a poorly handled story or some other gaffe that would traditionally be laid at the Managing Editor’s doorstep, will NBC step up and say “It’s not his fault, it’s someone else’s” and say it loud enough, convincing enough, and long enough that the flak dies down? I would tend to doubt it.

If Holt did want it but NBC wouldn’t give it to him, it needs to explain itself. Why did it not feel Holt should be Managing Editor? Why should the first ever full time nightly solo African American broadcast news anchor not be given something his non African American peers have? You just know someone is going to point that out and make a racial argument. I don’t subscribe to that line of scrutiny but that doesn’t mean it won’t be raised. And it was something NBC should have anticipated and tried to avoid. The optics just do not play well there.

In fact the optics of Holt not being Managing Editor don’t play well under any scenario that doesn’t involve Holt not wanting the role. It undercuts NBC’s praise of him. Yeah, we think he’s great but we don’t think he should be Managing Editor, even though his predecessors were.

Lack and Steve Burke, CEO of NBCU, have decided that Williams will not be the anchor of Nightly News. Williams, who was an anchor at MSNBC from 1996 to 2004, will now join MSNBC as anchor of breaking news and special reports. He will work with Mark Lukasiewicz, SVP of Special Reports for NBCU News Group, who will help lead a team to strengthen MSNBC’s daytime coverage by further leveraging NBC News’ expertise in breaking news. In addition, Williams will serve as a breaking news anchor for NBC News live special reports when Holt is not available. He will begin the new role in mid-August.

I already said yesterday that the optics of Williams being put on MSNBC are bad. I noted that it raises the very uncomfortable question of why Williams was too toxic for NBC Nightly News but not too toxic for MSNBC. Politico’s Jack Shafer agrees

The shift of Williams from NBC News to MSNBC, which everyone will regard as a demotion, presents this question: How can Williams be too damaged to work as NBC News’ anchor but not so damaged that he can’t work at MSNBC? This move reveals a never before articulated but often implied contempt that NBC News has for its cable outlet: Its journalistic standards tower over MSNBC’s. Williams can’t really hurt MSNBC, the thinking must go at the corporate level, because MSNBC is only a talk-radio station made visual. A teller of tall tales like Williams will fit right in.

So does Jay Rosen

More challenging: NBC has to explain how he’s lost the credibility to anchor the nightly news but still has the cred to do news at MSNBC.

NBC does not want to answer that question. Nor, apparently, does it want to release the findings of its internal investigation.

What it does want to do is have Williams explain himself in an interview with Matt Lauer that was shot over two days. Two days? Why two days? For NBC’s sake they better post the entire interview, unedited, online. If they don’t, they leave themselves wide open for credible charges of “managing” the interview to put Williams in the best light possible. Or, put another way, to limit the damage as much as possible.

And then NBC wants to clam up and move on. How do we know this? Because of this statement from Steve Burke which was in the release…

This matter has been extensively analyzed and deliberated on by NBC. We are moving forward.

If this approach sounds familiar, it should

“We continue to have complete confidence in Fareed,” Zucker told POLITICO after a luncheon with reporters on Tuesday.

When pressed further if that meant Zakaria would continue appearing on CNN, Zucker repeated that they have complete confidence in the host.

The parallels between Williams and NBC and Zakaria and CNN are frighteningly similar. Consider…

– Star talent gets into big time trouble over matters that strike at the heart of their network’s journalism.
– Network does an investigation, doesn’t release the results, and decides to retain them.
– Whenever pressed, network retreats to boilerplate statement that says nothing other than it’s moved on.

We have yet to reach that last point with Williams and NBC but Burke’s statement strongly signals that’s the direction the network intends to go. Whether they’ll be as successful as CNN was in riding out the storm is not clear. But odds are they will because the bar for screwups has been lowered repeatedly over the years.

Lastly, I want to touch on the fact that Williams will be handling breaking news on NBC when Holt isn’t available. Two thoughts immediately come to mind.

1) This curb stomps Savannah Guthrie and others (but mostly Guthrie) who used to be the one(s) with that role. It doesn’t rule out the possibility that one day she’ll eventually be Nightly News anchor. But it does slow down her trajectory to some extent because it relegates her to just Today and whatever special assignments she gets.

2) This undermines Holt. Yeah, Holt isn’t there at that moment in time which is why Williams is on the air. But it reminds everyone that Williams was once the face of NBC News…and could be again if things go south for Holt. Williams will in effect be the equivalent of the mosquito buzzing around Holt’s face. Holt doesn’t need that.

Between that and the fact he wasn’t named Managing Editor, I have to say that NBC’s embrace of Holt as the new face of NBC News has all the appearances of the most half hearted attempt by a network since ABC couldn’t make up its mind and put two anchors on World News after Peter Jennings died. Holt deserved better.

9 Responses to “CYA At 30 Rock…”

  1. I have always liked Lester Holt and I think in this instance it appears that NBC is almost waiting for him to fail. And when he does…..it will be easier to pull him off the air and put Brian Williams on again and off goes Lester.

    This could happen in 2-3 years b/c it would look really awful if it happened much sooner than that.

  2. Grandpa Dave Says:

    So who is the current Managing Editor of Nightly?

  3. Good question…don’t expect NBC to make a lot of noise about it either.

  4. I don’t get it… Lester Holt was good enough to hold the ship down during NBC’s and Williams stupidity , good enough to replace Williams but not good enough to be Managing editor ? unless he chose not to be but but like you said ,NBC should say it then

  5. Personally I think ‘Managing Editor’ is mostly a vanity title like all those given new high profile hires over at CNN. It’s a tradition but Lack and other suits are the ones making the final decisions on big issues that come up. How long his contract is and how much it pays is probably a lot more important to Holt than his secondary title.

    It will be interesting to see how Williams interacts with Holt when a big breaking news story comes along. I suspect both will try and pretend there’s no tension; but my guess is whatever the story is will play second fiddle to how people perceive the Williams/Holt on-air relationship works out.

    In the end I suspect this ‘Breaking News’ gig is only for a few months; until a show can be prepared for Williams on MSNBC or he decides to move on.

  6. Speaking of “Breaking News” does anyone know why Chris Jansing was covering the Church shooting yesterday? I thought she was the WH correspondent. Has anything changed or is Jansing just doing double duty on a slow day in Washington?

  7. It’s an interesting question: How much power does the Managing Editor have?

    Is it a ceremonial title or does the position have teeth?

    I think an argument can be made either way, depending on the anchor and the network. Does Muir have real power? That’s questionable. Does Pelley? More likely.

    We know from leaks that Williams did have power as Managing Editor. Stories came out about Williams spiking/frowning upon certain types of stories and that allegedly contributed to some veteran reporters leaving, Lisa Myers supposedly being one.

    As for Jansing. If Holt was “Iron Pants”, Jansing would be his heir apparent. Going way back to 10 years ago she’d be regularly cover stories that fell outside of her normal sphere of operation. That has continued to a certain extent when she moved to the White House and it has accelerated since Williams got suspended. I don’t use that timeframe as a reference because I see linkage between Williams’ suspension and Jansing’s extra curricular reporting. I think might have more to do with who is now running NBC News. Lack plucked Jansing from Albany TV way back in 1998 after seeing her on the air. Just last week she was bouncing all over Europe covering GOP candidates after doing a stint covering the President.

    It will be interesting to see if this is just a coincidental temporary abberation or we’ll be seeing more of her away from the White House going foward.

  8. “We know from leaks that Williams did have power as Managing Editor. Stories came out about Williams spiking/frowning upon certain types of stories and that allegedly contributed to some veteran reporters leaving, Lisa Myers supposedly being one.”

    ^^I’m not sure the title of “Managing Editor” is what gave Williams his power on NBC. It’s likely he would have been able to exert the same amount of control over his show without the title. Producers and suits often bend to the will of powerful hosts because they don’t want to rock the boat. And that power increases with every year they stay on the job.

    “It will be interesting to see if this is just a coincidental temporary abberation or we’ll be seeing more of her away from the White House going foward.”

    ^^As I see it the WH post is a plum job for a reporter on the rise. Jansing gave up a hosting gig (I know it was only on MSNBC) to take it. Why would she go back to breaking news reporting unless there was something else in the works. It has to be seen as a bit of a step down for her. Maybe you’re right and this is just a fill in role, replacing Holt as ‘Breaking News’ lead reporter, while Williams gets up to speed. We’ll see soon enough.

  9. I read somewhere (can’t find it now) that Jansing was already in Charleston in advance of the Jeb Bush campaign event there. That is why she was sent to cover the story. She was the first national reporter on the scene.

    That being said, I really like her and hope that she would get the NN Weekend position. She would be a solid choice. She was my favorite back when MSNBC was an actual cable NEWS network.

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