'Nightly News': Lester Holt on Why He Spoke Personally About the Anti-Racism Protests
When was the last time a network evening newscast rivaled top-rated NCIS in the ratings? This spring, due to the global pandemic that has us tuning in for much-need information. When Lester Holt took over NBC Nightly News desk in June 2015, the veteran anchorman (who also hosts Dateline and a twice weekly newscast for children), he couldn’t have imagined that, five years later, he’d be working from home, standing on a ladder frantically trying to replace a smoke-alarm battery minutes before reporting live. We spoke with the Emmy winner about more of today’s unique challenges.
Viewers flocked to network news during the country’s shutdown. How do you view your responsibility to viewers during these trying times?
Lester Holt: The pandemic is a shared national experience. What people turn to us for are verifiable facts, the good, the bad, the ugly of all this. Our job every day is to tell them what we know to be true and what we know not to be true. It’s especially critical now. For most of us in journalism, one of the reasons we’re in this business is to inform people at critical moments; that’s what we’re striving to do.
In this politically divided era, what do you hear from viewers? Do they believe that you’re giving them unvarnished facts or do they charge you with bias?
I haven’t faced much criticism, but that said I don’t expose myself to some of the darker areas of social media. I certainly try to keep an ear to the ground for what people are interested in hearing about, what they want to know and try to deal with those sorts of things on the show.
You offered very emotional commentary as nationwide protests erupted over police brutality sparked by the widely viewed killing of an African-American man by a white officer.
There come moments when as reporters we cannot be simple observers. Sometimes that means breaking the wall and getting personal. It became important to me that our broadcast-and me personally as its anchor-acknowledge the insidious angst that has enveloped the country since the pandemic and on through the murder of George Floyd and the resulting unrest.
Tell us about Nightly News: Kids Edition (Tuesdays and Thursdays online; on the NBC’s new streaming service Peacock which launches widely on July 15).
We wanted to do a program that could answer questions kids have about the virus. [After we spoke, the show began to cover the protests.] I always stress the more we know about something, the less scary it is. Kids submit video questions that we then ask expert to answer. We also show how kids are coping and the inspiring things that some are doing.
How has broadcasting from home been?
We turned my home office into a television studio. It’s cramped and I’ve stubbed my toes on multiple occasions, but our technicians did a masterful job of providing me and many colleagues broadcast platforms. We had to push a bunch of buttons and flip on some lights. Every so often, though, I’d forget something and hear in my ear, “Are all your lights on?”
What goes on behind the scenes at your home?
My Australian labradoodle Lucy sleeps all day but every night when I’m about to do my broadcast at 6:30, she wakes up and becomes a little hellion. So my wife [ Carol Hagen] is the official dog wrangler.
Could you hear the nightly cheers for essential workers from your New York City apartment?
I participated in them. Within a minute of my saying good night [on the air], I had my mike off, my earpiece unplugged and I'd run out and meet my family [Carol and younger son Cameron] on the balcony and whoop and holler.
How much did you leave the house during NYC’s pretty strict stay-at-home recommendations?
I was one of those people that if you told me standing on my head would flatten the curve or help people, I would do it. Until I finally rode my bike in the empty streets of lower Manhattan[ in mid-May ]. I only got out to walk the dog and go on a food run. I will say that I miss my colleagues incredibly.
Besides the current big stories, what are some of your most memorable stories since you took over Nightly News?
Anytime I’ve covered stories of mass suffering, of tragedy, those stories tend to stick with you. Though this is about the pandemic, recently those pictures of the freezer trucks being used as temporary morgues lined up outside hospitals in New York were unforgettable. Covering the mass shooting in Las Vegas was incredible difficult for all the obvious reasons. On a more poignant note, I covered the 75th anniversary of D Day last June with the elderly veterans. That was a very moving visit.
With this administration, since the President tweets so much, the newscast can’t dwell on what seems big news more than a day or two because there’s always some new Trump content to come.
Yes, there’s always something new and because it’s become politically charged, it puts more onus on us to sort out the facts and try not to caught up in some of the distractions of it. We try to be a very sober contemporary broadcast and part of that is holding our leaders accountable.
You’ll be NBC’s lead anchor on election coverage. This will be a very different convention summer. The Republican convention is slated to be a live, somewhat traditional, raucous rally while who knows what the Democrats will do. Virtual, perhaps. Have you started planning your coverage?
Obviously, how they do it is going to determine how we cover it. We’ll find a way but we’ll do it in a way that’s appropriate to making sure that we can all remain healthy.
NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt, 6:30/5:30c, NBC (check local listings)