Brian Williams makes no-nonsense return on MSNBC with pope coverage

Without fanfare, apology or comment about his recent troubles, Brian Williams returned to television as a news anchor Tuesday for the first time in seven months as he led MSNBC’s coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.

The former anchor of “NBC Nightly News” took over the chair in MSNBC’s studio on the third floor of NBC headquarters at Rockefeller Center at 3 p.m. EDT as cameras fixed on Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington. awaiting the arrival of the Alitalia jet carrying the pope. Almost immediately, Williams started crosstalk about the event as it unfolded on the screen with Chris Jansing and other NBC News correspondents covering the event.

Williams made no mention of his new role as anchor of MSNBC’s breaking news coverage or any reference to his suspension by the network after false statements he made on and off the air about his 2003 reporting on the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

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Williams, who first succeeded Tom Brokaw as “NBC Nightly News” anchor in December 2008, was officially removed from the evening news anchor chair in June. Lester Holt took over the program and has returned it to its status as the most watched network evening newscast.

Holt anchored the NBC News coverage of Pope Francis' arrival that aired on the network’s broadcast TV affiliates for about 45 minutes. The video feed was often identical to MSNBC and both anchors drew on the same battery of NBC News correspondents.

While Williams’ new role is clearly a demotion, he is the core of MSNBC’s new commitment to breaking news coverage during the day that fully integrates the on-air talent and resources of NBC News.

The positioning is a move away from channel’s dependence on progressive commentary in recent years, although left-leaning political hosts remain in place during prime time.

Williams was largely straightforward in his approach on Tuesday. He became more relaxed as the coverage went along, and even returned to breezy banter he has been known to interject in his coverage when the pope drove off in a modest Fiat 500 sedan amid a motorcade of limousines and SUVs. Williams referred to the pope’s vehicle as a “Mr. Bean car,” a reference to the British TV sitcom character played by Rowan Atkinson.

NBC News executives said privately that Williams did not rehearse before showing up on Tuesday several hours before going on. He met with producers during the day to go over the sequence of events he would cover and studied notes. An NBC News executive on hand to witness his arrival, but not authorized to discuss it publicly, said Williams introduced himself to producers and technical crew members he had not previously met and was greeted warmly by NBC News political director Chuck Todd and other correspondents.

Williams is scheduled to resume MSNBC’s coverage of the pope’s visit on Wednesday.

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