In the carefully orchestrated world that has been the Brian Williams Reputation Rehabilitation Tour, no move made by the disgraced NBC News anchor can be interpreted as mere happenstance.
Even his first assignment back on the air Tuesday covering the U.S. visit of Pope Francis is subject to interpretation. Is linking Williams with a holy man who preaches tolerance and forgiveness intended to send a subtle suggestion to skeptical viewers?
Williams will provide a fascinating test of America’s capacity for absolution–far from a sure thing for someone smacked with a six-month suspension for multiple lies he told doing a job that demands truth.
But tell Pope Francis that the most surprising resurrection since Jesus himself is close at hand: The redemption of Brian Williams will happen.
That may be hard to believe. The multi-month media storm that enveloped him, particularly his crucifixion via social media, may have been so intense as to have irrevocably lowered Williams’ standing among viewers. His attempts at apology have been poorly received. And Williams has fallen so far from his broadcast throne, consigned to the day shift on the network where he rose to prominence. MSNBC isn’t even giving him his own show, just vaguely defined breaking-news duties.
Oh, the indignity.
But what might seem a demotion is really just a hedge on the part of NBC News chief Andrew Lack, who wants nothing more than to bring back Williams to his former glory. And if he can use him to help resuscitate struggling MSNBC by re-positioning the network as more of a daytime destination for breaking news, all the better.
But rather than throwing Williams into the deep end by giving him his own program only to watch it sink in the event his reputation proves irreparable, the breaking-news assignment is Lack’s shrewd way of having Williams dip a toe back in rather diving head first. Coming out of the gate with something like “The Brian Williams News Hour” would have risked MSNBC and Williams coming across arrogantly presumptuous, as if they thought he could just pick up where he left off as if nothing happened.
Too much Williams too soon would be rejected by viewers quicker than a mismatched organ transplant.
And what better way for Williams to endear himself again by limiting him to the very thing he does best: delivering the top stories from the anchor desk. It will remind viewers of why they loved him in the first place and begin to put some distance between him and his scandal.
Yes, his every move on will be scrutinized for signs of the flaws that brought him down in the first place. Twitter-fueled memes mocking his fabrications will flourish for a good while. But then that joke will get old.
So here’s how this will all play out: Williams will be scrutinized at first. He may even stumble a time or two in a way that will make people wonder why NBC News ever thought of bringing him back. But in time, critics will put away their knives and he’ll earn praise for his smooth handling of one big breaking-news event or another. MSNBC will start to do better as well.
Prediction: Lack gives Williams his own show in daytime in the latter half of next year; he’ll add an hour in primetime in 2017.
He won’t ever reclaim the glory of an being evening-news anchor. But then again that role is not what it used to be, and never will be again. His MSNBC berth will actually probably be a better fit for him than the TelePrompter trot that is the evening news, giving him the opportunity to show a little range, inject more personality.
Sure, there’s always the risk that Williams could get caught fibbing again. But that’s not going to happen; knowing another slip-up would certainly end his career for good has a way of keeping a man honest.
Something else will motivate Williams to keep his nose clean. At 56, he still has enough runway left before the end of career to avert what he probably fears most: having this scandal mentioned in the first sentence of his obituary. This is a man who will do anything in the next decade to minimize his biggest mistake.
Redemption won’t come overnight, but rest assured it will come. It will happen so subtly you won’t notice it until one day Williams will get some positive press, and the scandal so sharp in our minds right now will be a dim memory.
Which isn’t to say that all that is going on here is that the passage of time blunts our sense of outrage. That is true to some extent, but there’s more to Williams’ rehabilitation than that.
What’s also at play here is that the one thing America loves more than knocking someone off their pedestal is hoisting them back up there when they’ve repented for their sins. All but his most strident critics will join the sizable fan base that never left him in the first place in rooting for his comeback.
But if the redemption of Williams still seems far-fetched, just consider Dan Rather. Making the rounds last week at the Toronto Film Festival, the former CBS anchor is seeing the scandal that snuffed his own storied news career get depicted in a new movie, “Truth,” that offers a more sympathetic depiction than he’s ever been treated to before. Whoever would have thought Rather would get an opportunity to have the world see Rathergate anew in a different light.
If Rather can restore his reputation in the twilight years of his career, just imagine what Williams can do at a time when he could still be in his prime. But while Rather settles for a satisfying coda, Williams can still write the third act of his own movie.
In the grand scheme of Williams’ career, the headlines will eventually shrink to a footnote. No one will forget, but as Pope Francis might have preached, many will forgive.