Brian Williams opens up about regaining viewers’ trust after scandal
Brian Williams is, surprisingly, back where he was in 2015: leading an evening newscast and winning in the ratings.
In an interview with Variety last week, he linked the momentum he’s achieved anchoring MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour” to its tight focus on politics and his efforts to regain credibility with viewers in the wake of a 2015 controversy over false statements he was accused of making that nearly ended his career.
“You emerge from it a different and changed person, especially given what I put everyone here through, and my friends and family, so every day is a new day on that front,” Williams told Variety.
Being able to work, he says, “was the best medicine” and the MSNBC job “is one piece in a piecing-together of things that has entailed asking viewers for their trust and their support one at a time. I regard every one of our viewers as a friend and a customer of ours, and I regard that bond very seriously.”
When asked about the findings of an NBC News investigation into the matter, the exact details of which have never been disclosed to the public, Williams referred the query to parent company NBCUniversal. A spokeswoman for the company, Hilary Smith, said executives declined to comment.
The success of the show represents a remarkable turn of affairs for the anchor. He led “NBC Nightly News” for a decade before a bizarre incident in February 2015 in which he acknowledged having embellished a story about a past reporting trip aboard a Chinook helicopter in Iraq. The aircraft, Williams had said on a “Nightly News” broadcast, was forced down by enemy fire. He was subsequently challenged by accounts from soldiers who were aware of the true nature of the incident and had begun to complain. Williams’ plane was never in such danger.
NBCUniversal suspended him for six months and took him off the broadcast evening newscast that was in first place. When Williams returned to the company, he was reassigned to a post as MSNBC’s lead anchor during breaking-news events, a job that required long hours on air.
Could someone throw the incident at him on air? In 1988, President George H.W. Bush taunted Dan Rather during an interview for leaving his set in 1987, causing problems with a CBS news broadcast. “I suppose that’s a risk,” says Williams. “I have to hope the relationships I have with the folks watching and a lifetime spent trying to be their advocate and trying to provide them a safe harbor,” he says, adding: “I hope that counts in that instance.”
What counts now is an audience coming to see him as the clock nears midnight. In the third quarter of 2017, “The 11th Hour” lured the most viewers of any cable-news show at 11 p.m., according to Nielsen, with an average of 1.6 million viewers, leading a repeat on Fox News Channel and the second hour of CNN’s “CNN Tonight” anchored by Don Lemon.
The show also won the most viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programs, edging out Fox News by 1,000 viewers and CNN by 15,000. Little wonder that MSNBC quietly expanded the show early in its run from 30 minutes to an hour, and from four nights a week to five.
“The 11th Hour” is a salon of sorts where guests pick through what some might describe as the societal wreckage trailing events in Washington. The show kicks off with the military sound of drums. Panelists discuss crucial matters of national security; suggest breakdowns in constitutional law and mull over critical congressional investigations.
Jeremy Bash, a former CIA chief of staff who is a frequent guest on the show told Williams in March, “Our Madisonian system of checks and balance is at stake here.” One viewer used Twitter to tell him how “effing scary” he is. Earlier this month, retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey came on the show and told Williams that “inescapably, we are sliding towards war” with North Korea. The statement “literally brought the room, everyone, to a standstill,” confides Patrick Burkey, Williams’ longtime executive producer. “It was stunning.”
The show’s growing audience spotlights a new dynamic in the news business: the flow of information no longer freezes up after the evening-news broadcasts on NBC, ABC, and CBS. When Nicolle Wallace served in the White House as a communications director for President George W. Bush, she never had to worry about news outlets posting to the web late in the evening.
“The news was already known,” says Wallace, who anchors MSNBC’s 4 p.m. hour and helped launch “The 11th Hour” in its first months on air.
Now, she says, a late-night news show can grab stories that were once solely the province of the morning programs. More proof: Fox News is about to launch a live program at 11 p.m., anchored by Shannon Bream. “If we’ve had any minor role in making this hour, which was once in our corner of the business – cable news – fallow, if we’ve made it a competitive realm, that’s hugely flattering,” says Williams.
His light banter helps viewers take in what is usually very dark stuff. “We begin tonight with a story that wasn’t a story until Donald Trump made it one,” Williams said recently on the 11 p.m. newscast that he anchors. He introduces most guests with a verbal flourish (and keeps a pile of bio cards on his desk to help him do so).
Those who visit are often cajoled to “remind us in plain English” or cautioned “don’t make me take this to the lawyers.” During a commercial break, Williams jokingly warns the operator of one of the studio’s robot cameras that he is “driving erratically.” All the lines, he says, are his: “It’s got to be language that originated with me, because you don’t own it if it isn’t.”
In an era that may as well have ended with the election of Donald Trump as President, Williams’ journalistic sin seemed more egregious. But that time is past. Now, as Trump rails daily against what he terms “fake news” and offers much of it himself, Williams’ error may recede in some viewers’ minds.
“The American public is often forgetful, and forgiving, but within limits,” says Len Shyles, a communications professor at Villanova University.
The new show “is a good fit” for Williams, says Janet Kolodzy, chair of the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston, as it allows him to inject personality into the proceedings, rather than sticking to the basics. “Whether that means he has cleansed himself in terms of acceptability? I would say it depends on whether you would be a person who listens to MSNBC.”
Others think Williams deserves the second chance. “I’m impressed by Brian’s ability to get up from a horrible moment and keep on going,” says Tom Bettag, the ABC News veteran who was executive producer of the original “Nightline.”
“The 11th Hour” has a lot in common with the old “Nightline.” Both grew out of a desire to cover a single massive news story. In 1980, “Nightline” allowed Ted Koppel to keep viewers informed about the Iranian hostage crisis. On “11thHour,” Williams’ primary focus is the Trump presidency.
“Nightline” was “all about seeing informed people,” says Williams. So too is his vision for “11th Hour.” There are no screaming surrogates or bickering talking heads on its air. The program instead relies heavily on White House correspondents with stories that have just hit the Internet; former Watergate lawyers; former military officials; NBC News staff working late into the night; and the occasional politician. Producers try to get politicians and others to appear as close to air time as possible, because they are concerned a taped interview may be overtaken by the news cycle.
“Other broadcasts, I have heard, have a rule that there should be no multiple-guest segments without conflict. We have a rule against conflict,” says Williams. “Conflict is easy. You know where to go to find it. If you come to us at 11 o’clock. I’m not going to yell at you. I’m not going to express my opinion or position, because it’s irrelevant. We are going to have no guests who intentionally insult your intelligence.”
The show wasn’t supposed to be on the air this long. When “11th Hour” debuted in September 2016, Williams, in an ad-lib, introduced it as “a pop up show” that will air nightly “from now until Election Day, when we will cancel ourselves.”
But as Williams found his footing, executives at MSNBC saw an opportunity to “punch through” and extend live programming past primetime, says MSNBC president Phil Griffin. Amid the craziness of the 2016 election, Griffin and Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, saw a need to help viewers wrap up the day’s events and – perhaps, more importantly — get ahead of tomorrow’s. “The mission of the show is to get the latest material on,” says Griffin. “And I don’t think that has changed.”
To serve this mission, a small band of producers hunker down each evening, identifying breaking stories and trying to snare the reporters and journalists who just finished writing them. “So much news is breaking in the 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock hour. There’s so much material to work with,” says Colleen King, “11th Hour” senior producer. “We call a lot of those reporters late at night. If they are not booked, we are trying to book them.”
Bash, the former CIA chief of staff, has appeared on “11th Hour” about 60 times this year, in his estimation. He often falls asleep getting his kids to bed and then is awakened by an alarm, so he can go out and take part. “I think the show is a moment of sanity in a sea of insanity,” he says.
Williams thinks viewers have a hunger for “smart talk” late at night, particularly in the wake of the departure of Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show.” “I’m doing a late-night show,” he says. “It just happens to be as serious as hell most nights of the week.”
And he acknowledges the program may be a better fit than a nightly-news gig for what he can do on air. “This new job may speak better to my personal skills, and it may turn out to be the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. Where he once expressed a desire to return to anchoring “NBC Nightly News,” he says he’s found a new roost that suits him just fine. “This is my definition of evening news,” he says.