Is Brian Williams’ Banishment To MSNBC A Triumph For Andy Lack – Or A Defeat For Steve Burke?

UPDATE, Saturday morning: As my intrepid colleague Lisa de Moraes notes, Brian Williams’ reference to “torture” with respect to his enforced vacation, aired Friday morning, was scrubbed from Matt Lauer’s interview in time for the new and improved version that was presented Friday evening on NBC Nightly News.


EARLIER: That’s the question everyone is not asking this morning, while focusing on Williams himself. I admit those words are hard to type, given the events in Charleston, SC, as if, in the light of mass murder, old-media shakeups matter one bit in the larger scheme of things. They don’t even matter in the smaller scheme of things, except perhaps to those of us who obsess on the long-term impact of seismic shifts in the landscape we struggle to work in.

Pundits offer conjecture on the meaning of Brian Williams’ dispatch to the unfertile pastures of MSNBC and the questionable tack of naming him the person who, henceforth, will cut into network programming with breaking news when his own replacement is unavailable. Some point out that anyone other than Williams would have been summarily fired given his offenses. “From the day this blew up, [NBCUniversal head] Steve Burke wanted Williams fired,” a person who knows told me anonymously, having been warned not to share tales out of school. But the news anchor-cum-comedy-show guest apparently was too big and too expensive for corporate defenestration. A forgiving public, goes the reasoning, will receive him back into its good graces after a dignified period in the network news equivalent of community service.

Williams revealed himself incapable of grasping the scope of his breach when he said, this morning, that his months of suspension had been “torture” — a word so poorly chosen for a Connecticut country squire who’d recently reupped his contract for a reputed $50 million as to usurp the breath.

So I wonder: What does Brian Williams’ being sent down to the MSNBC minors say about Andy Lack?

“From the day this blew up, [NBCUniversal head] Steve Burke wanted Williams fired,” a person who knows told me anonymously, having been warned not to share tales out of school.

When news of Williams’ crimes and misdemeanors broke over the winter and NBC News was shown to be a black hole of leadership, Burke brought Lack back to head the news division he’d led for a decade beginning in the early 1990s.

Brian Williams & Jimmy FallonIn the interregnum, Lack worked for Howard Stringer in Sony’s music division, orchestrating the deal with Bertelsmann Music Group that led to his own unmounting. Then he joined Bloomberg LP (where I also worked, though not in any capacity related to him), brought in to make the company’s vast and expensive television enterprise viewed by more than the families of Mike Bloomberg and former editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler. More than 100 people got their walking papers after Lack came on board, and eventually he was demoted upstairs, as had happened at Sony, and there’s still no one watching Bloomberg programs.

At NBC, Lack’s first two priorities were: deal with Williams, and see if MSNBC can attract more viewers than Bloomberg TV. Many of the news folks at NBC were relieved to have an actual journalist back at the top of their ranks. And it had been Lack, after all, who initially groomed Williams for the anchor slot.

Lack read the tea leaves and understood that journalistic chops — such as those hard-won by predecessors like Walter Cronkite and extending to Brokaw and Peter Jennings and even Dan Rather, who’d earned their stripes during years in the actual trenches of hard reporting from dangerous places —  were going to matter less and less in the changing landscape where the smartest news was being delivered over the Internet and by comic talking heads like Jon Stewart. Williams not only fit in, he had that Bill Clinton gravitas-meets-compassion thing down.

So while Burke may have wanted Williams gone, his prodigal lieutenant had other ideas. “I’m surprised at how much power Andy has wielded,” another person with knowledge of the situation told me, reflecting the views of several insiders I spoke with. The war over the broadcast networks’ battle for ever-diminishing, ever-aging audience share (how many Cialis and iron-supplement ads can anyone bear?) is as outdated and irrelevant as the programs themselves. But keeping the news operations afloat to feed other programming remains important. And there are Emmys and Dupont awards to chase to burnish the brand.

So Lack’s solution looks like a Hail Mary pass, desperately hoping to score on his two big challenges before getting sacked. It gets Williams off the flagship broadcast, keeps him from going elsewhere and offers hope that his popularity will bring some eyeballs to MSNBC.

Perhaps it’s all just a way of buying the former face of NBC News some time to make a semi-honorable exit, in which case this plan may in the long run be good for Brian Williams, a likable guy who was in over his head from the outset. But it reflects poorly on the new-old guy running NBC News. Eating your cake and having it too is no triumph when the cake itself has gone bad.

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