“Good day. I’m Brian Williams at MSNBC headquarters. In a short time Pope Francis will arrive in this country for the first time,” Brian Williams said, making his carefully orchestrated lowest-possible-key return to the air after a months-long suspension from NBC News.
His return had been promoted for the very first time by the cable news network just one ad break earlier, when MSNBC’s Thomas Robert said, as he threw to the break at 2:56 PM ET, “Brian Williams picks up for our special coverage next.”
Launching his new career on MSNBC, Williams, as forecast, made no introductory remark but got right to the business of covering Pope Francis’ arrival in this country, quickly throwing to Chris Jansing, NBC News’ Senior White House Correspondent, who was at Joint Base Andrews, awaiting the touchdown of the Pope’s airbus.
Williams came off relaxed, poised, and like a guy enjoying himself, as he wrangled a dizzying array of on-air talent who’d been lined up for his debut. He described the weather at Joint Base Andrews (formerly Andrews Air Force Base) as “a light precip is falling, of the drizzle variety.” At another point he told Anne Thompson, who said she had been assigned to Row 44 on the Pope’s plane, “grab your personal belongings,” adding, “Can we please upgrade Anne so she’s no longer in Row 44?”
The slew of NBC News on-air talent wrangled for Williams’ return all stuck to the NBC News script, making no formal reference to the broadcast marking Williams’ return. “Hey Brian!” was the closest he got to a shout-out, from Luke Russert, stationed in Washington along the Pope’s route, as Russert began a botched attempt to interview one of the many children waiting for a glimpse of the Pope as he was driven into town. The little girl turned away from Russert with an attack of shyness — raise your hand if you saw that one coming.
Starting at 3:55 PM ET, Williams competed for viewer attention with his NBC Nightly News replacement Lester Holt, anchoring an NBC News Special Report on the Pope’s arrival. The two men shared some NBC News talking heads, leading to the first uncomfortable moment of Williams’ return when he tried, unsuccessfully, to speak again to Thompson, who was on the air live with Holt for NBC. Holt’s special report wrapped at 4:30 PM ET clearing the congestion for Williams, who continued his report until 5 PM.
Also among those joining him in his coverage for MSNBC: Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, Maria Shriver, Kate Snow, and Jose Diaz Balart.
Wrapping his first day back on the air, Williams said, unironically, “We covered a lot of ground.”
“Our coverage of this visit and this day continues, as we will all the way through the Pope’s departure from the United States on Sunday night.
“Coming up next, the news continues with Kate Snow,” he said, signing off.
“Brian? I”m right here. I don’t know if you can see me,” she said at the wall from which she would open her show, some yards to Williams’ right in the cavernous studio.
“Oh. Hey there, Kate Snow!” Williams vamped.
While the Pope’s visit to the United States was the big news for the general population, Williams’ return to air was the big news among Reporters Who Cover TV, who tweeted madly during his first telecast. Some of those same members of the media had declared him sacked a few months ago, when the news division began looking into some of the dramatic accounts of his reporting experiences that had made Williams a hit on the late-night talk-show circuit. “At this point, Brian Williams knows he’s dead: he’s simply negotiating terms of his burial,” Politico columnized back in April – a position other media outlets stated as fact, citing informed sources.
Which led to some interesting backpedaling in the days leading up to Williams’ unveiling this afternoon. Some pundits insisted reports of Williams’ NBC News career death had been accurate, and that, technically, what we were going to see today was, in fact, a resurrection (nice Pope Francis tie-in!). One journalist called it the most surprising resurrection since Jesus which, while maybe spiritually dubious, would be the ratings miracle for which MSNBC is praying.
Williams did, in fact, lose his Nightly News chair, and at MSNBC he has not, to date, been given his own program, instead being tasked with anchoring breaking news as it happen. He is expected to continue anchoring some of MSNBC’s coverage of the papal visit throughout the week, primarily, though not exclusively, from the new news desk built for MSNBC at studio 3A.
Today marked his first time on live TV since February when he anchored his last NBC Nightly News telecast. NBC News suspended its Nightly News anchor chair that month, ending his decade-long run at that desk, when claims got out he’d made up stuff about his experience covering breaking news events.