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.