Lester Holt can’t walk through the halls of NBC for very long before someone stops him to say hi. Today, it’s Bill Bradley, former NBA player and New Jersey senator. Bradley stops the “NBC Nightly News” anchor to shake his hand and congratulate him on his performance as moderator of the first presidential debate.
Holt, who is on his way from the set of “Dateline,” the other show he anchors, up to his office, likens that night to “tooth extraction,” and he does so affably, with a booming laugh.
Back in his office at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, Holt, who was named anchor of “Nightly News” in June 2015, is the first one to admit that he’s ready for the election to be over. At the same time, he points out that he is humbled by the weight of his role during the debate and was honored to be in such as position. Outside of the election, Holt’s “Nightly News” leads its rivals, David Muir at ABC and Scott Pelley at CBS in the key demographic of viewers from ages 25 to 54. Recent ratings from the week of Oct. 17 put NBC at nearly two million viewers, followed by ABC at 1.7 million and CBS at 1.4 million. NBC and ABC are in a horserace for total viewers. Those ratings put ABC up over NBC by 17,000 viewers to nearly eight million.
Holt began his career as a reporter on local news stations in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. He moved to MSNBC 14 years ago where he anchored “Lester Holt Live,” and covered major global and national news events, such as the war in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He joined NBC News in 2000 to cover breaking news and work as co-anchor of “Weekend Today,” and later principal anchor of “Dateline NBC” in 2011. Here, Holt talks about what it was like to moderate the presidential debate, if the news is too entertainment-driven and perhaps the biggest story coming out of the election — the issue of privacy in the modern age.
WWD: The debate that you moderated was the most watched in U.S. history, and many had predicted the size of the audience, which totaled 84.5 million, beforehand. Were you nervous?
Lester Holt: I absolutely was. There were a lot of nerves going into it. At the point I’m walking on the stage, at that point, I’m like “It is what it is.” I know I’m prepared. I’m not exactly sure how they are each going to come off. What the biggest challenge for me is that I’m one of those people who likes to be liked. It took me a while to wrap my head around: I’m going to do this and I’m going to do the best I can and there are going to be people who are unhappy and so be it. Once I wrapped my head around that, it was full steam ahead.
WWD: Were there moments in which you couldn’t believe the way the debate was playing out?
L.H.: There were moments where I couldn’t believe it was playing out exactly as I expected. Without going into a lot of detail, we had done a lot of preparation and some mock work and there were a couple of moments where I was like “Oh my goodness, I just did this. I had this exact same exchange.” I treat it like any developing story or breaking story; you just go. I had a plan in front of me, but there were moments were it was like “That’s not going to work, let’s move on to this, let’s move on to that.” The most important thing, whether you’re doing an interview or moderating a debate, is make sure you’re listening. It was a matter of being flexible. The most interesting thing about it — and I’ve moderated debates before — it was kind of lonely. It was just me and them, and the only voice I hear in my ear [from the producer] occasionally is just some time checks.
WWD: Did you feel like you needed to jump in more or did you want to let them go at it a bit?
L.H.: There were many times that I tried to cut in and I couldn’t. What I wanted to do was to make sure that they answer the questions. That’s a challenge with virtually every politician because they come in with their talking points. I get it, but I wanted to press for answers when they weren’t being given or when I felt they weren’t being given.
WWD: Your colleague Chuck Todd talks about the “post-truth era” in regards to Trump. During this campaign, did the media need to call him out more?
L.H.: I think the industry has done a masterful job of calling out both candidates on inconsistencies, on untruths, but it hasn’t played the way it has typically played [in the past]. Typically, you do a story like that and a candidate may walk it back or say “What I meant to say or clarify.” What has been unique about Donald Trump is that he owns things. He has been very bold and he owned those [controversial] things. We’ve done our job but a lot things that we see as controversies have made him stronger.
WWD: Why doesn’t it stick to him?
L.H.: He’s not a politician. He’s a gifted — and I say this not in a negative way — showman. I’ve interviewed Donald Trump more times as the guy from “The Apprentice” than I have as the presidential candidate. So, a lot of us know him as a showman. He’s supremely confident. Something that he may get called out on, he will continue to say it with a great conviction. I would say he’s also been successful because he found key issues that really resonated. People were really talking about immigration…he said some controversial things, but rooted in that is that he brought that issue forward. That issue kind of launched him.
WWD: Is he the same Trump you knew and interviewed years ago?
L.H.: He understands our business. He understands television and he lets you know that. I remember running into him about two years ago…we crossed paths and he said “got something big coming up pretty soon, got something big.” At that point, it was rumored that he would run for president and I remember thinking “yeah, you’re running for president.” And now, look where we are.
WWD: There has been a lot of criticism about cable news enabling or helping to build up Trump as a candidate. How do you view that?
L.H.: Trump has spoken very openly about how he has benefited from free media. He has gone where no presidential candidate has gone before multiple times. We can’t ignore that. There’s the old adage in journalism: “Dog bites man is not a story, but man bites dog is.” When you have a candidate who has said things that are culturally and racially offensive, when you have a candidate who has advocated positions that are largely unconstitutional, you can’t ignore those things. He’s a master at pushing buttons and making you look twice. Those are the stories that we cover. Have we covered him too much? I’m not really a judge of that. Every day we make the decision about what you think is the lead story and generally it is provocative, something surprising…often he’s that guy.
L.H.: I’ve heard that rumor. I will only say that we have seen a fragmentation of the media over the years. I call it the boutique-ization of media. There’s an outlet, a blog, a paper, a channel that will cater to your world view and confirm your world view. I expect we will continue to see that as the landscape expands, whether it’s Trump TV, I have no idea.
WWD: Assuming Hillary Clinton wins the election, how do you think she’ll play as president?
L.H.: I don’t know is the easy answer. We all know that both of these candidates are tremendously flawed. Her Achilles heel has been this perception of playing fast and loose with the rules, being untrustworthy. I don’t think that goes away. I think that potentially dogs her if she is elected president. We’re all so focused now on the things right in front of us that I don’t know that we’ve sat back and said to ourselves “OK, what would a Trump presidency look like? What would a Clinton presidency look like?” I think we’re going to have those discussions, certainly on election night as the numbers come in. I’m going to be [anchoring] with Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie and Tom Brokaw.
WWD: Why haven’t you asked those forward-looking questions yet?
L.H.: I think it’s hard to get past the likes and dislikes in this campaign.
WWD: What other stories have you been interested in covering lately?
L.H.: Anything but politics right now. [Laughs] Syria continues to be a huge story. We had an exclusive interview with the Secretary of Defense who raised this idea that after Mosul, we’re going after Raqqa, the capital of ISIS in Syria. That’s a big deal. How do you do that? We don’t have significant troops on the ground. We don’t have the same dynamics you have in Iraq. [Another story is] the issue of these homegrown attacks we have seen over the years. I think trade will be an interesting story. Another story is this whole cyber snooping and hacking.
WWD: How do you view this issue of privacy in light of hacking and WikiLeaks as a journalist? What onus does the media have on verifying leaked information before reporting it?
L.H.: I have been discussing that a lot. I look at it in a couple ways…from the standpoint if somebody breaks into your apartment and steals your pictures and your love notes and all those things and puts them onto the sidewalk, do I have the right to pick that up and disseminate it and to share it? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. But, I’m also mindful that some of the most important journalism has been from people who have gotten documents illegally or from sources that were not supposed to be talking. That’s a bedrock and a foundation of investigative reporting, but a lot of these hacked e-mails in this case and others have been everything — things that might be newsworthy, some things about personal, family business. I think it’s a conversation we should be having in the business. I think right now because there’s a political campaign around it, it’s hard to have that conversation, but I really think it’s something we have to explore because we’re going to see more of this.
WWD: How has the role of an anchor changed?
L.H.: I think the job has changed from when I was a kid. You sat down and watched the evening or nightly news every night and it was your main source of news. You’ve got a lot of other ways to get news now. I’ve tried to change the model a little bit. The title is anchor, but I like to think of it more as a lead reporter. I’m a reporter like you’re a reporter. The reading part of it is more like a presenter, but I like to take the broadcast on the road. I like to report. I like to go to the newsmakers. I like to get out. I’ve heard about people talking about the anchor as the voice of god. That set is not an altar. It’s a great job, I love doing it, but I don’t take that role as my identity — the anchorman — it sounds very old-fashioned.
WWD: Can you talk about the duality of TV news as part journalism and part entertainment? Do the lines blur? Do you feel the need to entertain?
L.H.: Entertainment is kind of a pejorative term. We have a half hour every night — less than that with commercials — to tell the stories of the day. We’ve got to package it in a way that is digestible, that it holds your interest. It’s the same reason that a newspaper is careful about what that headline is because they want to capture your interest. Is that the same thing as entertainment? No, it’s good production value. In terms of story selection, they can’t be all doom and gloom…We can’t be above the audience. Sometimes what we care about is the World Series, sometimes we want to hear about somebody who just did something very nice; it’s not world changing but we’ll put it on. It’s part of a balanced diet.
L.H.: I’m lucky to have a job! It’s really funny, when you go through that list, I think that’s why we’re so relevant and our two other competitors. I say this in a good way, we’re kind of old-fashioned. We do news where we want to not have one source but two sources and we want to attribute where the story came from. We go by the old rules of journalism — that’s not to slam these other outlets because they found a unique niche, but I’m proud to be part of the mainstream media. I don’t think that’s a negative. I think we’re more relevant than ever because it is such a noisy environment out there. What’s a journalist now? It’s anybody with a way to get information out and you’re sitting there with your smartphone in front of you. That’s what we’re up against now. There’s a lot of unfiltered information. Some of it is accurate, some of it way off base. We’re that safe port in the storm. The challenge is right now, I call it the death of critical thinking in our country. It’s a very worrisome development. More and more people seem to be resisting the idea of standing back and asking questions about something, challenging their beliefs.
L.H.: I think we’re a more partisan, more polarizing country right now. There’s a sense of, “I have to pick a side right now. Are you for Trump or are you for Clinton? You can’t be both. It’s almost like rooting for sports teams. This is your team. It doesn’t matter if you lose…you’re with them.” I tend to be the opposite. Something will happen and I don’t know how to think about that. You feel like the weirdo because you don’t have an opinion yet. There seems to be such a pressure right now from all the sources of information out there, all the voices, that say come on, pick a side. Are you red or blue, Republican or Democrat? I can really get both sides.
WWD: What are some of your most memorable stories?
L.H.: There was one I did in local news in Los Angeles. I was a reporter on the 11 o’clock news…one of the stories we found was of an 18-year-old kid, who was brain dead from a car crash. He was one of 13 kids in this family and his backstory was, he was this go-getter. He had run for mayor of his local town and through a beat check we had found out this happened. The heart team from Stanford flying up to get the family who donated the heart and they wanted to talk, which is very unusual. You cover these stories and one of the worst things to do is to talk to a family, but in this case they wanted to talk. They said, “We want you to know what a great kid he was.” It was very emotional. We were there as the heart team runs out to the helicopter with the heart as the family was weeping. That was an important story because it reminded me that we can cover tragedy in a more humane way and this family made it easier.
WWD: And a story that was a challenge for you?
L.H.: I was a local reporter in Chicago. There was a gang member who wanted to tell his story. As a result of being on TV, he was murdered the next day. That was a moment where I gained 10 years of experience overnight about the power of the camera lens and telling people’s stories. That was a very impactful story.
WWD: Would you have done anything differently?
L.H.: I don’t know. The backstory of that one was we were doing a special report on the gangs and the Chicago housing authority and we found a gang member who was authorized to talk. We were waiting for him. One of the other gang members walked up to us and said ‘what are you doing?’ He kept pushing. He said ‘I’ll tell you what’s going on. I carry a gun and I sell drugs and I have to…I’ll go on TV.’ I told him ‘no’ but he kept pushing. This was powerful stuff. What reporter would turn it down? I said, ‘fine.’ We turned on the camera and he said the same thing, ‘ I carry a gun.’ It aired a day or two later, but the next day after that, someone said, ‘there’s a guy in the lobby who wants to talk to you. He says his brother was on TV and then he got killed.’ I was like ‘whoa.’ I sat down with the brother. He says ‘look, Mr. Holt, I don’t blame you. He was what he says he was. I just wanted to let you know he was somebody’s family.’ It was very hard for me… I’d like to say I’d do something different. I probably wouldn’t. He was so forceful and it was such a compelling story, but I think sometimes we lose sight of how powerful we are when we put someone on the news—for good or bad. It can change their lives. That lesson always stuck with me.
WWD: Who are some of your journalistic heroes?
L.H.: You may not believe this because he works right downstairs, but Tom Brokaw. I’m still a big — I know sounds very NBC self-serving — but I’m still a huge Matt Lauer fan, which is interesting because I’m at a level now where you don’t think that I don’t look up to anybody. I still think he’s one of the most tremendous interviewers out there because when I interview people, one of my guiding principles is to be respectful no matter who I am interviewing, not judgmental, but making it clear that I really need you to answer these questions. I try to have a conversation with people. He does that really well. There’s a really fine line of being aggressive and demanding answers but making sure the interviewee and the audience understands this isn’t personal. I think he’s particularly gifted at that because I think interviewing is the hardest thing that we do.
WWD: Do you think he got too much flack from the media after his performance moderating the presidential Town Hall debate in September? He was criticized for being too soft and giving more of an entertainment interview.
L.H.: I didn’t bring up Matt’s name to bring that up, but I don’t want to get in the middle of that. I will simply say: I was taken aback. The criticism was so surprising because I don’t think there’s a better interviewer than Matt. Yeah, I thought it was unfair. There’s such a glare on all of us. Like I said at the beginning of the interview, I like to be liked, but I’ve developed such a thick skin over the last year.
WWD: What do you do outside of work? I hear you’re a bass guitarist. Do you play in a band?
L.H.: Yes, we’re called The 30 Rockers. It’s a group of us here in the building. We try to get out of here once a week and we sneak out to a rehearsal space over on 46th Street that we rent and we play rock ‘n’ roll. I say that with a smile because I’m more of a jazz guy, R&B, country, whatever. Whenever I’m playing, I’m not the anchorman, which is great. I always say, you should do what you do and then do something else [as a hobby]. I also love airplanes, but I never learned how to fly. I took a couple ground lessons. My son is a pilot and my dad was a private pilot but I never learned but I fly simulators. I have these very sophisticated computer simulations I fly. I’m a geek. Sometimes on a Saturday I’ll fly from Boston to Washington or something like that. [Laughs] I have different planes, a 777 or a 737. It’s total geek-dom.
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