Brian Williams' first assignment last week was really more of a test run: In his new role as MSNBC's breaking news guru, the ex-anchor of NBC's "Nightly News" stepped back into the spotlight to cover Pope Francis' first visit to the United States, sporting a humbler and less punchy persona. He even had to suffer zingers in the press and on social media, with commentators poking fun at the idea of a disgraced newsman coming back to seek redemption by covering the pope himself.
But on Thursday, as news broke of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, Williams appeared to find his voice as a broadcaster once again.
“This is always a spooky business watching people walking through the parking lot and police with dogs, which means one of those cars belonged to the gunman,” Williams said deep into the coverage of the shooting, a sample of his running narration as the story unfolded. MSNBC's aerial cameras circled the UCC campus as experts and witnesses jumped on and off screen -- all while Williams remained the guiding voice for viewers at home.
It was exactly the type of story he would have been all over back in his days as anchor of "Nightly News," where he resided for almost 10 years before stepping down after embellishing tales from an assignment in Iraq. In the middle of the chaos on Thursday, he seemed to be at home.
“This is what Brian excels at, and it’s tremendous to have someone of his stature and skill on our air," MSNBC President Phil Griffin told International Business Times on Friday.
Despite the grim nature of the story, the moment was a prime opportunity for Williams, his crew, and the higher-ups at MSNBC to prove that the cable channel can pull off its new mission: more hard news in place of the usual left-leaning chatter. As IBT reported this month, Williams' new job is essentially to be on call: He has no particular show, no particular time slot and, aside from breaking news coordinator Mark Lukasiewicz, works with any MSNBC producer whose show has been interrupted by the breaking desk.
So far, it's worked with few, if any, hiccups. Without appearing on air every single day since his return, Williams and the breaking news desk have merged with the landscape of MSNBC (even after causing a slight rupture upon arrival), solidifying the anchor as a fixture on the channel, and once again a familiar face for people watching at home.
Williams appeared with little fanfare when he came back on air during the pope's visit: A brief promo preceding his re-entry to TV land was the only bit of hype for his first broadcast in over six months. Appearing at the desk, with his staff tittering in the background of MSNBC's new breaking news set, Williams jumped straight into the coverage with no long-winded acknowledgments or personal pleas to viewers at home.
"Good day. I'm Brian Williams at MSNBC headquarters here in New York," he said. If things keep going according to plan at MSNBC, that's a phrase viewers will hear more often in the months to come.