Like the return of an autumn chill after a long hot summer, the appearance today of Brian Williams was at once a surprise, and an entirely familiar presence. Certainly by design, none of the correspondents or guests Williams spoke with over two hours of live coverage marking the arrival of Pope Francis in the U.S. made any mention that he’d just returned from six months in exile. “Good afternoon, Brian,” they said, but never “welcome back.”
And for those who may have wondered what this post-scandal Brian Williams might be like, the answer was immediately clear: he’s very much the same seasoned anchor, with the same flourishes. With Williams in the anchor chair, we weren’t looking merely at an airport tarmac, but rather “two sets of air stairs, one for the front of the aircraft, one for aft, and quite soon an Airbus 330 with Alitalia markings will be taxiing to a stop…”
With grey clouds over Joint Base Andrews, Williams noted, “a light precip is falling, of the drizzle variety.”
The story served Williams well, with plenty to talk about, and a sense the story was far more significant than Williams’ debut. The focus was off the anchor’s personal story, and it freed him to do what he has always done very, very well–effortlessly anchor live news coverage.
He was very much the Williams we remembered, and the Williams we liked. He demonstrated his knowledge of the airfield, its buildings, and the nuances of Papal protocol, but steered well clear of anecdotes. He was smart, deeply knowledgable, and ever so smooth. If anything, he wasn’t humbled, he was perfectly in his element. He seemed to be having a terrific time, smiling and enjoying every moment.
Surrounded by the network’s top-tier talent–Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, Chris Jansing, Kate Snow and Maria Shriver, among many others–the overall atmosphere was not MSNBC as we have come to know it in recent years, but NBC News. As Jeremy Schilling said on Twitter, “as Brian has thrown to correspondent after correspondent it feels like Nightly News all over again.”
And that, of course, is exactly what NBC News Group boss Andy Lack wanted. No distractions, no apologies, and in no way was Williams made to appear diminished. Just the news–and if it feels like Nightly, so much the better.
“That is what MSNBC was created to do: Put NBC News into the 24/7, live breaking news business,” Lack told The New York Times Monday.
With that in mind, Williams’ return today was a first, successful test flight for the new MSNBC Lack envisions: NBC News heavyweights covering major stories–with the most familiar of anchors guiding the coverage.