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Brian Williams returns to airwaves for pope coverage

Associated Press

Brian Williams returned to the airwaves of MSNBC to anchor coverage of the visit of Pope Francis to the United States on Tuesday, his first day back at work following his suspension from NBC News and demotion for misleading viewers about his role in news stories.

Dressed in a suit and blue striped tie, Williams made no mention of his absence. He anchored the network's coverage from 3 to 5 p.m. EDT, stationed in a Manhattan studio.

All business at first, Williams seemed to loosen up as his two-hour shift moved along. At one point, he was talking with NBC correspondent Anne Thompson, who was on the plane with the pope, after it had landed.

"Thank you, Anne. Grab your personal belongings," Williams said.

Williams had opened his broadcast by introducing White House correspondent Chris Jansing, at the airport where the pope arrived, for a report, followed by short interviews with Maria Shriver and Jose Diaz-Balart. "Meet the Press" anchor Chuck Todd was in the studio with him to discuss the trip's importance.

Network news divisions had been gearing up for pope coverage, with Lester Holt, George Stephanopoulos and Scott Pelley anchoring special reports on Tuesday's arrival on NBC, ABC and CBS.

But Williams' return attracted the most notice. Except for an interview with Matt Lauer on "Today," he'd been off the air since his suspension from "Nightly News" in February. He was caught telling a false story about his coverage of the Iraq War, and lost his "Nightly News" job after an NBC investigation turned up other instances of exaggerating his role.

Although Williams won't have a regular daily show on MSNBC, he's expected to anchor during busy news periods a couple of times a week. The network has ditched its daytime opinion programming in favor of news coverage that emphasizes its ties to NBC News.

His return was timed to coincide with MSNBC's revamp and to offer some control over his first appearance. Williams is to anchor coverage of breaking news, which, for the most part is unpredictable. But the pope's visit has a strict schedule and media outlets have been planning for it for months.

NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said last week that Williams is one of the best in his generation for covering live, breaking news on television.

"I'm confident that he deserves a second chance and I'm confident that Brian is as good at his job as he was last year at this time," Lack said. "I think viewers will engage with good work. It's not going to happen overnight. ... We're playing a long game here."

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