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Why MSNBC Makes Brian Williams Squirm

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Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart got “all up in [Brian Williams’] grill”—though Stewart disputed whether “the whitest man in America” could possess a grill—about the on-air feuding that broke out last week at NBC’s sister news channel, MSNBC. (Nutshell: Tim Russert is gone, everybody wants to be the new daddy, and it’s catfight time.)

To the extent that Brian Williams is ever flappable, he got a bit flapped.

“You’re the big dog, you’re the anchor,” Stewart asked Williams, “and then they send you over to MSNBC, and literally they’re beating each other up. … Is there no control, is it Lord of the Flies?”

Williams reached for a diplomatic answer: “I think every family has a dynamic all its own.”

“Does NBC have to be the Lohans?” Stewart retorted.

There’s been a lot of jawboning over the last week or so about the tensions among the various MSNBC personalities, but while I imagine it doesn’t make for the most commodious working environment, I doubt it’s a problem for MSNBC ratings-wise. (What about journalism-wise? People, this is cable news we’re talking about.)

Cable news thrives on heat, and it’s not necessarily bad for the channel to generate its own. As long as people don’t start quitting en masse or getting fired, it only cements an image of MSNBC as a place whose hosts have passions and share them. Olbermann, Scarborough et al may generate a lot of flak for this—and for combining opinion with news anchoring—but compared with a few years ago, it’s hardly lost them viewers. Frankly, I think there’s something refreshing about a news network whose personalities critique each other in public—like Tucker Carlson complaining about the opinionated Olbermann anchoring news coverage—even if it may give their bosses heartburn.

Where it creates problems for the larger NBC News family is—well, right in Jon Stewart’s chair. Brian Williams represents—indeed, physically embodies—stability and even-handedness in the news. When he, and NBC News’ other straight-news folks, make their frequent appearances on MSNBC (or vice versa), the drama clings to them by association.

Not to mention the politics. In theory, the NBC News-MSNBC relationship is a prime example of the potential of TV-news synergy. But NBC has two brands operating together at cross-purposes: NBC News (old-fashioned, voice-of-America, steady on the tiller, playing it neutral) and MSNBC (edgy, leaning ever more left, heavy on the drama, taking sides).

That will only become more of an issue as MSNBC continues to pursue its strategy of lining up left-of-center hosts as an analogue to Fox News’ right-of-center ones, the latest being Rachel Maddow, who starts her new show next week. (By the way, to answer the argument that always comes up when someone tries to launch “a liberal [name of conservative media outlet here]”: Can MSNBC be as big as Fox News? Probably not. It doesn’t have to be. It just has to be bigger than the old MSNBC—a much smaller order.)

Fox News doesn’t have this problem, because there is no larger Fox broadcast-news outfit it has to mesh with. It can’t be comfortable for Williams and company, however, to deal with this dissonance, and the discomfort seemed to show through in his interview with Stewart. Not entirely in jest, it seemed, he told Stewart that network-news people have pressures that Stewart can’t imagine, and he sarcastically told Stewart that “it must be nice, John, to have a little liberal salon.” (You have to wonder if he wasn’t really talking to Keith Olbermann.)

The only way out for NBC—and maybe for the larger enterprise of TV news—may be to redefine the structure and expectations of a TV news operation. There’s no real model for a news organization that has one straight-news arm and one opinionated-news arm, but maybe NBC will be the one to invent it: getting viewers to accept something like the relationship between a newspaper’s news page and its opinion page. (Except that here, the “opinion page” also does its own newsgathering.)

To this end, maybe the MSNBC drama actually helps anchors like Williams in their predicament. It casts MSNBC as a fractious coalition, not a top-down monolith. If Joe Scarborough and Keith Olbermann don’t approve each other’s messages, why couldn’t it follow that Williams doesn’t endorse the way either of them do their jobs as well?

In a news business where there’s seemingly insatiable demand for 24-hour news with attitude, but still a lucrative legacy business of old-fashioned straight network news, this model—however it ultimately takes shape—may be the only way forward. But it won’t be very comfortable for Brian Williams.