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The resurrection of Brian Williams

Now that NBC News has taken erstwhile anchorman Brian Williams to the woodshed and kicked him into the shallower pool of cable news at MSNBC, he has a second chance to make a second impression.

The naysayers who argued he would pay the ultimate price of an on-air personality and be denied the special oxygen that only public exposure can bring some of them, he will be back before the mic and camera next month to show what he's made of.

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Proud of being a newsman and pretty good at it when he wasn't veering off in flights of self-promotion on chat shows and the like, Mr. Williams apparently will have the opportunity himself to throw a life preserver to a cable outlet that has been having its own ratings troubles competing with the conservative bully-boy on the block, Fox News.

With its allegedly fair-and-balanced spoon-feeding of the altar boys of the right-wing choir, Fox will offer a contrast to the straightforward reporting from which Mr. Williams had sometimes strayed, giving him an advantageous playing field on which to construct his comeback.

The MSNBC assignment that the parent network says he will undertake is to handle major breaking news stories in studio and sometimes out of it, which should afford him an ideal environment to re-establish himself beyond mere news-reader, enabling him to show his stuff again as a news observer and conveyor.

But the obvious question is whether he will be able to restore his credibility in a craft in which truth-telling is the essential ingredient.

Some of the most basic tenets taught in old newsrooms and journalism schools can serve him well again, such as, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Or, "When you've told all you know, hit a period." Finally, Mr. Williams needs to adhere to the oldest of reportorial tenets: "Remember, you're not the story."

There was a time in journalism when the first-person singular was never to appear in print or speech. Now it's regularly honored in the breach, but it's still a good self-guide to knowing one's place.

Stories on Mr. Williams' return also suggested that the NBC News goal was to chart MSNBC more on a course of newsgathering, in contrast to the heavy doses of analysis and opinion that mark Fox News, though cast in contrasting liberal or progressive tones. This design too should make his re-entry smoother.

His much-aired interview with NBC's "Today" host Matt Lauer was carefully orchestrated to give the guy on the hot seat full range to explain himself, absent a star-chamber atmosphere. Mr. Lauer is no Mike Wallace, though a somber Mr. Williams, oozing sincerity from every pore, described the encounter as personal "torture."

He tenaciously used constructions short of what Mr. Lauer seemed to probe for: that his guest had deliberately lied in retelling journalistic war stories more suited for late-night bar-room conversation.

No doubt there will be some in the news business — print, radio, television or blogosphere — who will hold that Mr. Williams never should have been allowed back into the fraternity, or that his employer let him off too easily.

But a man with more than two decades on the firing line with no major ethical or personal behavioral rap against him warrants an opportunity to earn his way back into acceptance, if not to the idolatry some on-air journalists acquire, as studio news-readers or in-the-field reporters.

Meanwhile, his "Nightly News" replacement, Lester Holt, hit the ground running and has not stopped delivering straight-from-the-shoulder reporting with grace, as he did in the aftermath of the Charleston church massacre.

If, as has been suggested, Mr. Williams may fill in for Mr. Holt on occasion, forget it. Such a notion would be a bad idea and an unfair to either of them. Mr. Williams had his shot; Mr. Holt clearly deserves his, with no shadow or ghost hanging over his shoulder.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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