Media analysts wonder: What does Williams move say about MSNBC?

What does this say about MSNBC — and NBC News, for that matter? Inquiring minds in the media would like to know. It confirms an argument long made about MSNBC by conservatives, which is that it has no credibility as a news bureau, even while operating under the supervision of NBC News. In fact, assigning an anchor exposed as a serial fabulist to a position of the cable channel’s “face” of news coverage almost looks like an admission that MSNBC operates at a much lower level of credibility. Longtime media critic Jack Shafer marvels at the message:

Lloyd Grove at the Daily Beast asks the same question, almost word for word:

Interim anchor Lester Holt, 56, will be named to the Nightly News chair permanently as broadcast television’s first African-American solo anchor, while Williams, also 56, is said to have agreed to resume working as an anchor at MSNBC, NBC News’s ratings-challenged corporate sibling, whose audience is a tiny fraction of the Nightly News program’s. In his heyday, Williams drew as many as 10 million viewers.

The latest in a series of embarrassing corporate cockups at NBC News over the past several years—notably the messy departures of Today show co-anchor Ann Curry, Meet the Press moderator David Gregory, and high-profile Today show executive Jamie Horowitz (after mere weeks on the job last November)—this new development raises yet another awkward question: Why have NBC News Chairman Andy Lack and his boss, NBC Universal chief executive Steve Burke, apparently determined that Williams might be too damaged for the broadcast network but entirely suitable for the cable outlet?

Not just “entirely suitable” as a correspondent or perhaps an opinion-show host, but as its primary reportorial representative. Grove notes that NBC and MSNBC have gone very quiet on this question. The plans for Williams, as reported by the New York Times last night, make it a critical point in NBC News’ plans for the ailing cable channel, whose ratings have collapsed as its prime-time lineup has failed to hold its young-adult demographic:

Exactly what Mr. Williams’s new role at NBC entails is not clear. But revitalizing MSNBC, which has suffered sharp ratings declines, is known to be a priority of Andrew Lack, the former president of NBC News who was brought back in March to head the division. With the evening news anchor decision out of the way, Mr. Lack is expected to focus a good portion of his attention on fixing MSNBC, and in the coming months, the cable network is expected to introduce more hard news and more reporting from NBC News talent during daytime hours, according to a person briefed on the plans. That would be something of a break from its more opinion-based programming.

So Lack has chosen a fabulist to lead MSNBC to the Promised Land of journalistic integrity and objectivity? That would make for a hilarious joke under other circumstances, and actually is pretty amusing in this context, too. Consider this: NBC News has a stable full of talent to help them make that transition, ranging from foreign correspondents like Richard Engel to political analysts like Chuck Todd. For that matter, they could look outside the organization to woo upcoming talent away from competitors who have established credibility outside the NBC/MSNBC organization.

Rather than do that, they’ve decided to make Brian Williams the face of objective credibility at a cable channel so poorly considered that it’s become a joke in the industry. There’s only one possible reason for this decision, and that’s the money that it would take to shove Williams out the door.

Erik Wemple, the media analyst for the Washington Post, advises NBC that “foist[ing]” Williams on MSNBC will only make matters worse than they are at the moment with the cable channel:

One problem it doesn’t need is Brian Williams. By one count, this is the guy who’s been busted by an internal investigation for 11 quite outrageous embellishments regarding his past. At the same time, Williams is a smooth news delivery vehicle with a high name recognition: If he is unloaded on MSNBC, how much worse can things get?

Considerably. MSNBC’s critics are a motivated bunch and are already busy enough with Ed Schultz, Chris Matthews & Co. Just watch what happens when Williams pilots a report having to do with Iraq or helicopters or Israel. Then again, there really aren’t a lot of places to hide a liability like Williams, whose six-month suspension is up in August. Newsrooms don’t designate set-asides for embellishers.

Well, if the plan is to hide Williams for the duration of his contract, there really isn’t any better place to put him.