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It could be called the “NBC Very, Very Late Nightly News With Brian Williams.”
Instead, it’s “The 11th Hour With Brian Williams” on MSNBC — a new show starring an old face who’s honorably doing what he does well in a humbling environ.
Last night it was a smart look at the day’s obvious news: terrorism in Berlin, Zurich and Ankara. It didn’t leap to conclusions about who did it, and Williams noted a State Department warning to U.S. travelers about the risk of getting too close to holiday markets through Europe.
It’s a cable version of a pre-Broadway run in Chicago. The corporate hierarchy — meaning Andrew Lack, the NBC News chairman and Williams’ key patron, through thick and thin — does hope to move Williams to a better slot than 11 p.m. somewhere down the road, say several well-placed folks in-house who know the thinking.
But while much of America sleeps, Williams comes long after Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews, just as he’s adjacent to them in MSNBC ads found in movie theaters amid the recent trailers for “Fences” and “Jackie.”
But it’s pure Williams in its retro essence: low-key, serious, not given to self-absorbed questioning or much endemic TV hyperbole, subtly droll, more about the guests than the host. Savvy on bureaucracies and history.
After his much-chronicled ethical mishap and suspension, Williams lost the top perch at NBC News to Lester Holt. Little could be as painful, given the ego-filled plastic virtues of television, where pure airtime is a far more craved value to many than actual superior work.
But, hand it to the guy: He took very public and at times gratuitous lumps — even becoming a comedic cultural punchline and synonym for untruths — but has put his head down, labored hard and persisted.
His half-hour show is good and harkens somewhat to “The News with Brian Williams,” a journalistically terrific if ultimately failed one-hour effort in MSNBC’s early days. Then, Williams took one for the corporate team and briefly set aside an ascending NBC career to labor in the vineyards of then nascent cable operation.
He’s back in its relative obscurity, a bit like the star Major League pitcher rehabbing at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre (at least if you’re in the Yankees organization). All the while, he anchors important events for MSNBC, not NBC, such as his reflexively adept performance last Friday before and after President Obama’s tour de force press conference.
During a recent show’s segment on Donald Trump’s ambiguously soft response to Russian hacking, he asked an expert, “Why this sudden benefit of the doubt to these former adversaries?”
It was the right question, if not a new one, but devoid of the “look-Ma-it’s-me!” self-righteousness of most star cable hosts. It was a question, not op-ed oratory cloaked as interrogation.
For sure, the show’s very hour brings “news” that many folks have heard discussed by then. It’s tricky. Both cable and broadcast have an inherent difficulty in avoiding what “everybody” around Manhattan or Washington newsroom water coolers is talking about, even as they proclaim a penchant to be different and more analytical.
The sameness of daily decision-making by very smart people is vivid. Even Vice Media’s new and at times iconoclastic HBO newscast (“Vice News Tonight”) can be undermined by a topical similarity to what was just done an hour or so earlier by the old broadcast war horses it disdains.
What to do with Williams? I’d be running a cable network if I knew.
Perhaps his producers can be more forward-looking about what’s ahead the next day. Or have a healthy component of media analysis, especially in the Trump Era, and roll the dice by vamping on how the press is covering the new guy that very evening.
Or, hey, actually have a real round-up of foreign news, not just the latest images of the day’s terrorism, like last night, or of the horror of Aleppo. Executives are scared of clickers being grabbed if they do foreign news. But it’s a big, fascinating world out there that goes well beyond TV’s beloved images of mayhem (and lousy weather).
And, finally, perhaps they can somehow insert more of the humor of a truly funny guy.
“What a quaint idea that there are still norms in the world,” he said to one guest last week. It was witty and understated, not sneering condescension.
Yes, he made it to the “bigs” with a fastball and curve. But other than his own late-night talk show appearances (that, for sure, partly got him into his ethical bind), you’d never know that he’s got a slider and knuckleball, too.
Let him use them. See what happens. He’s come this far from media purgatory, you’re still paying him a giant sum (if smaller than before his troubles), so maybe somebody should have the balls to experiment and try something actually different.
Read of the day
Time. You remember Time, right? It’s got a terrific piece,”Finding Home,” about the early days of four Syrian refugee children, born stateless, as their families begin looking for a place to settle. The moms “are among the more than 1,000 refugees who have given birth in Greek refugee camps in 2016 alone.”
What will happen to these children in a world so very hostile to so many of these exiles? (Time) One will now see, thanks to a partnership of Time and the Pulitzer Center.
And when through with that…
Check out what happened to a champagne-colored Columbus, Georgia car that wound up with a repo man and ultimately in a “dirt parking lot in West Africa.”
“The Travels of Mrs. Murray’s Toyota Unveil Terror-Finance Network — Her 2009 Land Cruiser followed the same overseas car caravan that U.S. officials alleged raised millions of dollars for Hezbollah—a trade route they thought they had cleaned up five years ago.” (The Wall Street Journal)
Emily Chang and Monday Night Football
Early in last night’s Monday Night Football on ESPN, there was a snazzy ad initially featuring Hugo Barr, vice president of Xiaomi. But it wasn’t an ad for Xiamoi. Then there was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and IBM CEO Gianni Rometty. But it’s not a commercial for either.
No, it was for “Bloomberg Technology,” a show on Bloomberg’s cable TV channel. And the ad highlighted Emily Chang, the anchor-executive producer. It airs daily at 6 p.m. Eastern.
BuzzFeed leader on the future
In his annual letter to the troops, Jonah Peretti says that media companies are still spending too much of their budgets on declining print and broadcast outlets. But it’s not just a problem impacting news.
“The entertainment industry has also been too slow to shift to digital, resulting in a lack of compelling storytelling on digital platforms. The vast majority of the budgets in the entertainment industry are focused on declining traditional platforms like linear television and cable.” (Recode)
With Obama in Hawaii
One way to get an all-expenses paid trek to Hawaii over the holidays is to be part of the modest press crew whose employers can afford the hefty tag. Those include Brittany Lyte of The Washington Post, whose “pool” dispatches yesterday included:
“POTUS and motorcade departed the ‘Winter White House’ in Kailua at about 7:38 a.m., arriving at the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay about seven minutes later. It was a quick and uneventful journey. Your pooler is holding at McDonalds’ outdoor cafe, where the wifi is strong and the birds are singing. Weather is overcast and humid, but pleasantly dry after a rainy few days.”
“At 8:34 a.m., the press van carrying your pooler pulled out of the McDonalds parking lot at the Marine Corps Base under soot-gray skies that threatened rain. We are currently holding at the base, awaiting the POTUS motorcade, then we’re en route back to Kailua. “
“Following a game of golf, POTUS departed the Mid-Pacific Country Club at 3:36 p.m. As the motorcade traveled along S. Kalaheo Ave., two women standing along the road hoisted a large cardboard sign above their heads. Scribbled with marker, the sign read: “4 more Obama!” Your pooler is now on an estimated two-hour hold in the Kailua neighborhood where the First Family is staying.”
There was more. I assure. Jealous?
Nice work by Politico’sKen Vogel, who reports, “President-elect Donald Trump has continued employing a private security and intelligence team at his victory rallies, and he is expected to keep at least some members of the team after he becomes president, according to people familiar with the plans.” (Politico) As Vogel notes, that is a “major break from tradition.”
“Multi-day hunting or fishing trips with President-elect Donald Trump’s sons are reportedly up for sale at one dressed-down inauguration weekend party.” (The Hill). This was broken by TMZ, namely that the Trumps plan to give donors who give $500,000 or more to the Inaugural festivities a chance to go hunting or fishing with Trump’s sons. Yes, $500,000.
Sheesh, when Vice President Dick Cheney shot that 78-year-old Texas lawyer chum while they were quail hunting, at least the lawyer got it for free.
Time on her hands
Greta Van Susteren, who exited Fox News and doesn’t seem to have been snapped up by a competitor, yesterday offered this searing wisdom via Facebook: “I have been thinking a lot about journalism and the media….it is so good and important for the American people when journalists are focusing on facts, and provoking debate about important issues. Having a free press doing a great job is so incredibly important.”
I await imminent musings on the importance of family, clean water, penicillin, the arts, refrigeration, voluntarism and quick-serve oatmeal.
In the world beyond Trump and Washington
Here’s a fine investigative effort via Bloomberg by Michael Kavanagh, Thomas Wilson and Franz Wild, with help from Washington’s Pulitzer Center, on the corruption and political drama in Congo (Kavanaugh, a freelancer, brought the idea to Pulitzer). It preceded a solid New York Times piece over the weekend). In sum, as President Joseph Kabila refuses to leave office this week as mandated, his family makes off like bandits.
The family has “built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo’s economy and has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the family. The sprawling network may help explain why the president is ignoring pleas by the U.S., the European Union and a majority of the Congolese people to hand over power next week, though his advisers dispute this.” (Bloomberg)
Congo is the continent’s biggest producer of copper, tin and cobalt and has attracted heavy investment, including from U.S. mining giants. All of it could be threatened by instability that may be in the cards as Kabila declines to leave the stage. It’s a very fine example of the expanding universe of journalism partnerships.
“Shul ties: Ivanka and Jared’s big move has D.C.’s Jews Buzzing.” (Politico) Huh? “They can choose from several Modern Orthodox synagogues but Georgetown’s Kesher Israel is seen as the front-runner.”
What’s next? The “front-runner” on their favorite home-delivery matzo ball soup?
The morning babble
Terrorism in Berlin and Zurich, the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and “Historic Defections in Electoral College,” as “Morning Joe” put it, initially dominated this morning. CNN actually had a real, veteran reporter, namely Nic Robertson, in Ankara and was stacked with lots of smart folks actually discussing foreign policy.
“They are waging a religious against us,” a “Fox & Friends” co-host said about terrorists presumed to be behind the Zurich tragedy before returning to the Electoral College vote. Fox then seamlessly segued to the bogus notion that the press hadn’t given much attention to the five Clinton electors who did not cost their votes for her. “Will the left rest now?” asked co-host Ainsley Earhardt.
Adelson’s White House staff
Since Sheldon Adelson’s was the first, and nearly the last, among the 100 largest papers to endorse Donald Trump during the campaign, it’s no surprise that he’ll like support Trump here on in.
The Las Vega Review-Journal’s White House coverage will include conservative columnist Debra Saunders, late of The San Francisco Chronicle, suggesting that an ideological predilection will far outweigh White House experience.
“While I’ve written columns and editorials for 30 years, I have never worked as a straight news reporter. I expect to be the oldest cub reporter in the White House press corps.” (Review-Journal)
Well, perhaps it takes a neophyte to cover one.