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Brian Williams is making ‘The 11th Hour’ the most important hour of the cable news night

In this Nov. 5, 2014, file photo, Brian Williams speaks at the 8th Annual Stand Up For Heroes, presented by New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York. (Photo by Brad Barket/Invision/AP, File)
In this Nov. 5, 2014, file photo, Brian Williams speaks at the 8th Annual Stand Up For Heroes, presented by New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York. (Photo by Brad Barket/Invision/AP, File) (The Associated Press)

I was planning to write about MSNBC’s Brian Williams and his nightly show “The 11th Hour” the week of Sept. 6, which will mark the production’s third anniversary.

My premise: Brian Williams and his production team have made “The 11th Hour” into the “Nightline” of this new media age. I am talking about Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” during its glory years in the 1980s and ’90′s when it was the last word on news and set the national agenda like no other newscast on network or cable. It was the one indispensable news program of the day. (Koppel was anchor and managing editor from the show’s inception in 1980 to 2005.)

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Given the vastly different digital landscape of today versus the one on which Koppel operated, I am sure my premise will be challenged. But what I am saying is that, like “Nightline," “The 11th Hour” has become for me the one show I go out of my way to see every night before I call it a day. And when I do, I feel like I am not only plugged into the flow of the day’s most important news but also have been offered an informed context and perspective on it. And the number of shows, newsletters, podcasts and video productions that “the 11th Hour” competes with on multiple screens today is exponentially larger than the competition Koppel’s “Nightline" faced.

So, why am I writing about Williams and “The 11th Hour” today instead of Sept. 6? I am doing so because Williams blew me away with his coverage and commentary last week on lead-contaminated drinking water in Newark. Such outstanding work demands to be praised. But the media beat is so Trump-driven, nano-second-crazed and helter-skelter these days that if I don’t write about it now, I might not get a chance during the anniversary week, and that would be a shame.

Here’s Williams introduction Thursday night for a video report and in-studio interviews on the water crisis:

“The largest city in the most densely populated state in our union, Newark, New Jersey, has been staggered by a crisis over lead in the drinking water that the city has known about for years. This affects thousands of homes, most of them in low income neighborhoods where lead pipes bring the water in from the street,” he told viewers.

“An effort to hand out filters to home owners failed when some of the filters failed. And then this week an effort to hand out bottled water to those willing to come and get it in the hot sun was botched. And just like what we’ve witnessed in Flint, Michigan, what`s happening in Newark, New Jersey, exposes the intersection of poverty and health and race and class and the word that has come to mean so much that it now means virtually nothing, infrastructure.”

That last sentence is the smartest I heard from any show host on cable TV last week. It instantly gave viewers the deeper sociological context through which to filter all the information that followed.

Williams further did something cable hosts rarely do: He acknowledged his own privilege in a question he asked one of his panelists, New York Times reporter Nick Corasaniti, who covers New Jersey for The Times.

“For what it`s worth, Nick, again as someone who was born and raised in the state, if this were happening in my hometown of Middletown where the current governor lives now or Summit or Bedminster or Rammstein, there would be holy hell going on, and we all know it, that this is part of race and class. Has a leader emerged to step forward and say I`m going to help fix this?”

But Williams, who characterized himself Thursday night as being “a little charged up about this,” had even more to say about Newark before he signed off. In a closing commentary, he went beyond the sociological context to take an even larger view in linking Newark’s failed response to the lack of national leadership today.

“On this day in 1914, the Panama Canal was opened. It was and remains one of the great engineering feats of all time. It changed the world. It redefined what was physically possible,” he began.

“It took the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt to ride to it completion, to overcome obstacles, make sure it got done. This week is also the anniversary of V-J Day in 1945 when in colossal fashion following the only use of atomic weapons in the history of the world, the United States won the war in the Pacific, having vanquished tyranny both on the European front and across the Pacific Ocean. It took the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt who did not live to see the victory he engineered,” he continued.

“Why do we talk about our history every chance we get?" he asked. “Very simply, to remind ourselves who we are and yes in many cases, who we used to be. We`re hoping it will be useful for citizens. Perhaps the citizens of Newark, New Jersey. The next time any elected leader there says, ‘We`re sorry, we just can`t get you water to replace the poison in the pipes into your home, you`ll have to come get it. We know it`s hot. The lines are long and the water is heavy. But there is really no way we could get it to you.’ Remind them that at one time we were the wonder of the world, carving a path through the surface of the earth to join two oceans, later crossing those oceans to help save the world.”

If you cannot hear echoes of Edward R. Murrow in that writing, you are not listening. That is about as good as gets when it comes to TV news. And it is not all style. There is meat on the bones of what Williams has to say about the importance of knowing and talking about history, as well as his insights into the higher meaning of leadership. I love that he called out the leaders of Newark for their indifference to the harm and suffering of citizens as result of both the lead in their water and the city’s lack of a serious effort to distribute bottled water. We could use more of that from the media in Baltimore when it comes to our leaders at City Hall.

I was one of the critics who denounced Williams in 2015 over false claims he made about his role in combat coverage, claims that ultimately led to his removal as managing editor and anchor of the “NBC Nightly News.” As I said at the time, what he did was seriously wrong, and it demanded serious punishment, which NBC rendered in ultimately replacing him at the “NBC Nightly News” anchor desk with Lester Holt.

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But I am glad the network found a new space for Williams to use his talent and experience in anchoring MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour.” At this moment when journalism and a free flow of reliable information are under continual attack from the Trump administration and its many media allies, our democracy is made stronger by having Williams and this production at the end of each weeknight to offer perspective on the political and cultural warfare that now dominates the conversation our of nation’s civic life.

So, here’s an early wish for a happy anniversary to the team that makes “The 11th Hour.” And here’s hoping you will be around for many more nights to give me and your other regular viewers so much of the news in one place at the end of some of the most tumultuous and challenging days those of us in the information business have ever faced.

Please, stay charged up.

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