Brian Williams didn’t go gentle into that good night.
In a noticeable break from the journalistic demeanor he has projected for nearly three decades at NBC News and MSNBC, the veteran anchor used the final minutes of his tenure on MSNBC’s “11th Hour” to warn viewers of the frailty of American democracy and urged them to keep it safe — if they could.
“My biggest worry is for my country. I’m not a liberal or a conservative. I’m an institutionalist,” he told viewers as the clock neared midnight on the east coast and his five-year term on the show came to a close. “I believe in this place and in my love of country. I yield to no one, but the darkness at the edge of town has spread to the main roads and highways and neighborhoods. It’s now at the local bar and the bowling alley, at the school board and the grocery store, and it must be acknowledged and answered for.”
The agitated sign-off came from an anchor who has rarely, if ever, used the anchor chair as a bully pulpit. And they marked the end of an era for Williams and NBC News, who have been together for a nearly three-decade run.
And yet, the concerns he explored are among the topics that have often played at the forefront of “11th Hour,” a program that has served as a place to help viewers make sense of a confusing era in U.S. history, with the rise of Donald Trump and extreme political factions growing on both right and left. At its launch, the show marked a bold new effort. Most of the cable-news outlets went to repeats of their primetime schedule after 11 p.m. Now, none of them do. Even so, Williams’ segments haven’t been filled with the usual cable-news talking heads screaming at each other, but actual experts. The reporters who visit have spent the day covering the stories they’re talking about, and the guests are usually attorneys or former government officials who know what happens in a courtroom or the halls of Congress.
Williams has stayed at the task longer than expected. When he launched the program in the fall of 2016, he cautioned his viewers not to grow too accustomed to seeing him. He originally billed the 11 p.m. program as “a pop-up show” that would air nightly “from now until Election Day, when we will cancel ourselves.”
Five years later, he’s finally shown he wasn’t kidding.
The anchor bade farewell to NBC News at the tail end of Thursday night after a career that revved up at MSNBC in 1996, when he anchored a show called “The News,” and came to its denouement in 2021 on the same network. Between those two assignments, Williams rose to the top of the news business. He succeeded Tom Brokaw in 2004 as the anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” which was the most-watched of the evening-news programs when Williams had to leave in 2015. He even began to show up in other places, hosting “Saturday Night Live,” turning up on the comedy “30 Rock” and even doing voice-over work on the animated Fox series “Family Guy.” NBCUniversal suspended him for six months in 2015 and removed him from “Nightly” after determining he had misrepresented details about a story he had long told about a reporting trip in Iraq in 2003, some of which made it onto a “Nightly” broadcast.
In the moment, Williams went through the proverbial wringer. But when he returned, assigned to lead MSNBC during breaking news and, later, to host “11th Hour,” he focused on the task he has performed for years — helping people make sense of the news. You could make the case that Williams spent the last few years at NBC working to redeem himself. Other anchors have in recent years committed more egregious offenses, both on camera and behind it. Williams has tried to help viewers understand what’s been going on in the world around them.
He spent his final “11th Hour” trading bon mots with frequent guests, including Nicolle Wallace, the MSNBC afternoon anchor who started at the network as a sort of sidekick to Williams on the late-night show. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Eugene Robinson also visited, as did historians Michael Beschloss and Jon Meacham, along with political consultant James Carville. An end-of-show retrospective burnished Williams’ talent at making guests look good and his zeal for well-turned phrases and in-the-moment narration.
His final words mixed alarm with a farewell, telling viewers that the United States in 2021 was “a nation unrecognizable to those who came before us and fought to protect it — which is what you must do now.”
Asked on Thursday what he’d most like to be remembered for during his NBC tenure, Williams replied via email: “It’s a tough call but I’m proudest of our work covering Katrina. Before, during and after the storm — and for months on end.” NBC News’ work around that disaster was awarded the Peabody. “I was very proud that we established a bureau in Nola [New Orleans] and kept the focus on that region. It’s one of the special places in my life,” he added.
He did not respond to a query about what, if anything, he might do next, but two people familiar with his thinking have suggested he is likely to take a break, and then seek new opportunities that might put him back in touch with his current audience, as well as some that might help him connect with new people, too. There is already speculation that Williams could fit in well over at CNN, which needs to replace Chris Cuomo in primetime, or that Williams might seek something different, like leading a talk show, or showing a different set of talents.
Williams did not address the controversies of his career directly on TV, but told the audience that “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
In the final moments of the show, with a chyron beneath him that read “Until We Meet Again,” Williams suggested he would be back in a new job. “I will probably find it impossible to be silent and stay away from you and lights and cameras after I experiment with relaxation and find out what I’m missing, and what’s out there.”