Being a news anchor at a time of cratering trust in the media has its challenges. Like having Trump-ian insults hurled at you on social media — or a New York City sidewalk. But Lester Holt is fully committed to the at-times-Sisyphean-task of changing hearts and minds. “We’re going to have to just keep pushing forward, and being good,” he says.
Pushing forward is something of a trademark for Holt, who has been “Nightly News” anchor and managing editor since 2015 and helmed “Dateline” since 2011. In fact, Holt’s unyielding work ethic is legendary at NBC News, where his typically marathon stretches on the anchor desk during breaking news earned him the sobriquet “Iron Pants.” Today, he’s still in the office most days in time for the 9:30 a.m. news meeting and may not leave until 10 p.m., if the West Coast feed of “Nightly” needs updating.
During the pandemic, he started a weekly digital “Nightly” newscast for kids, and also began to write and deliver periodic essays on “Nightly News.” He won’t call them opinion, which is something of a pejorative in these times of hyperpolarization. “I try and walk up to a line where I’m not giving an opinion, but more perspective.”
In 2017, he kicked off his “Across America” franchise, during which he’ll anchor “Nightly” from a different city or town each night of the week. On Monday, he embarks on his sixth road trip, reporting from Austin, Texas, about the city’s booming real estate market, among other stories. On Tuesday, he’ll be in St. Louis; on Wednesday, he’ll interview embattled Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Mark Milley in Washington, D.C., then it’s on to Nashville and Phoenix.
“I always tell people who live in New York — you really have to get out of New York,” he laughs.
His dedication to the flyover states is genuine; the 62-year-old Holt exudes an old-fashioned aw-shucks decency that can be startling in such a cynical era. Of course, he does have his indulgences. He’s an aviation buff and he’s known to rock out with his band the Rough Cuts. His NBC News office is festooned with model airplanes; two electric guitars rest on stands in the corner.
Despite the pronounced erosion in live viewing across the television landscape, “Nightly News” is still watched by 7 million viewers each night, which puts it in TV’s top 10 most weeks. During the height of the pandemic last year, when Americans were homebound, the newscast was watched by as many as 12 million viewers a night. And the show has embraced the digital pivot, averaging 74 million video views across platforms in 2021 (up nearly 50 percent compared to the last nonelection year in 2019), while full episodes of “Nightly” on YouTube average nearly 1 million viewers.
“There’s been a lot of talk about declining viewership in the broadcast world in general. But people are still consuming news, they’re just finding other ways to watch it,” he says. “As a large organization we’ve got to be peeking around the corner all the time. Where are they going to be not tomorrow, but next week? And how do we get ahead of them?”
Here, Holt talks to WWD about his competition (ABC’s “World News Tonight With David Muir” and the “CBS Evening News With Norah O’Donnell”), interviewing Donald Trump and the effect of the social media “rage machine.”
WWD: You’ve been to Orlando, Fla.; Louisville, Ky.; Cleveland; Seattle; Las Vegas; Milwaukee; Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; Denver; Chicago; Raleigh and Durham, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; Warren, Mich., and Fayetteville, N.C. And you’ll be in Austin on Monday. Is there one big takeaway from all of these road trips for you?
Lester Holt: This is a very diverse country. And that’s what I always find doing these things. And it’s not just political, the red states and blue states. It’s what people value and how they approach things. On these national newscasts we sit behind a set in New York most nights. We take the show on the road when there’s a big story, a big calamity. Why not go when everything’s OK?
WWD: Do you just like to travel? Because not everybody likes to travel, especially these days.
L.H.: I do like travel. I was a little afraid of travel coming out of the pre-vaccine period. I was doing some shooting outside my apartment, under limited circumstances. But I was itching to get out once the vaccines became available. Sometimes I don’t like the mechanics of travel. But I do like waking up in a different city and trying the local beer or the restaurants. But I enjoy the adventure.
WWD: Trust in the media has fallen off a cliff. You talked about this in your Fourth Estate Award speech from the National Press Club. You’ve been on the road your entire career. Do people react differently to you now?
L.H.: Sure. Oh my God, I finished up a show about two weeks ago — we do “Nightly” across the street in Studio One — and I walked out of the studio and a guy on the street saw us and says, “Here we go, fake news.” And I was like, wow, really, we’re still doing that? Some percentage of people out there have signed on to that notion that the mainstream media can’t be trusted. The point of that speech I made is that first of all, we have to get out of this “woe is us” stuff. But what we can take away from [criticism] is to be better. And to really think about how we say things and how we report things. And that sometimes criticism is on the money. Not a guy yelling “fake news,” but sometimes we’ll get emails or I’ll see something on social media and it stings. The things that sting are true. People are right sometimes. I could have said that better. Or I shouldn’t have glossed over that. We have to be more vigilant because we’re not going to move this mountain and bring all these people back to the idea that we’re trustworthy all at once.
WWD: But do you think it’s too late for that? Because there’s a seemingly significant portion of the population that doesn’t agree on reality, on basic facts. Is it even possible to turn that around?
L.H.: I like to think, and maybe I’m naive, who some of the folks who seem like they’ve disregarded all facts, that maybe when they go back to their home, and they’re not in the crowds, there’s an acknowledgement. Because frankly, sometimes people will criticize me, but it’s clear they’re watching me every night. So I do like to think that some of it is a bit of bravado. It’s the “in” thing right now to bash the mainstream media. But where are they going to turn when the hurricane’s coming? Or when a pandemic is coming? Suddenly people found us. It’s a hard question to answer. I will admit, it’s incredibly frustrating.
WWD: You moderated the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. At that point, a lot of people thought Clinton would win and Trump would be relegated to Trump TV. And now we have members of Congress amplifying Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud and a stolen election. We really seem to have lost our way as a country.
L.H.: That part of it has been no fun; having to use the word “lie” in reference to our government, our leaders. It’s not something that I’ve ever had to do in this business. Back to your question, is it too late? I mean, what choice do we have but to continue pushing forward and telling these stories as we know them? And I think one thing we’re beyond now, is this fear of looking political. It’s not political to give facts. It may have a political reaction, but on our part, it’s not political. And I think that was a hard part for a lot of us to get past; that idea that we can confront this stuff and call it out for what it is, and not have a political agenda.
WWD: How would you describe interviewing Donald Trump?
L.H.: In many ways, no more, no less frustrating than interviewing any politician. You ask what time it is, and they tell you what color the sky is. So there’s that. He’s very boastful. He likes to put a very positive spin on things. He’s not the first or the last politician to do that. He can be very entertaining and charming. You get the sense that he wants to win you over. But that’s not a really unusual attribute for any political leader. He is a salesman.
WWD: How do you think President Joe Biden has conducted himself with the media? Because it seems like he is not really reverting to what used to be expected. He hasn’t been very available to the media. And he’s been a bit combative.
L.H.: There’s been a recognition among people in power that they don’t have to come to us, they don’t have to sit down with Lester Holt. We saw the success that President Trump had with social media. And of course, we know what happened subsequently. But that was a huge filter for him, that allowed him to paint us and create his own narrative. And I think that’s something that a lot of people in power are waking up to, and recognizing. And it’s just one more challenge for us.
WWD: Does that make it harder to book newsmaker interviews?
L.H.: I still think people understand the value of telling their story on such a broad platform as a television network. This is why the three of us [NBC, CBS and ABC] compete heavily on getting the big gets. The other thing we’re seeing is politicians thinking they don’t have to cave in as quickly. Public pressure used to sometimes force tough decisions. The thinking now tends to be, hey, I can outlast this, this will pass. The rage machine could consume you, but you also might be able to outlast it. The outrage can only last so long because something else will come along. And I think right now we’ve seen examples of people testing the boundaries of that.
WWD: How has the rage machine, as you put it, affected how you approach your work? We are in a moment where everybody has a platform to say any crazy thing they want.
L.H.: As a journalist, it’s hard to criticize the idea that people can have a platform. I said in my speech the other night, we’re not the only voice in the room now. We’re not the only ones who get to ask the questions. And we have to recognize that and deal with it. So it would be disingenuous for me to be critical of people exercising their right to free speech. But we’ve got to become critical thinkers. We’ve got to learn not to take things at face value and put them up against the smell test. And I think that’s the key, we’ve got to help news consumers be better consumers of news. I know I can become that irritating friend at the party who says, where did you get that? And I try not to do it in an obnoxious way. But it’s amazing how much people will run with stuff, especially if it confirms their worldview.
WWD: The ratings wars in TV news are legendary. How closely are you looking at the ratings? How important are they to you?
L.H.: This always sounds disingenuous, I don’t look at the ratings on a weekly basis. But I do look at the competition, however. Not every day but I do get the actual shows sent to me. Because for me the measure of how we’re going to do is how are we standing up? How is our newscast differentiating itself? And on that measure, I feel really good; the amount of enterprise journalism, stories we’re breaking, or owning.
WWD: Is there a camaraderie with the other evening anchors, Norah O’Donnell and David Muir? Do you ever reach out to them to compliment them?
L.H.: Nah, what are you crazy?! No, I mean we occasionally see each other at big things, like the presidential luncheon right before the State of the Union. And we’re all very cordial. I mean, all of us recognize that these are really cool jobs and there are only three of them. And to be one of the three is pretty special. Great respect for all of them. If they do something great, I’ll silently give them a kudo.
WWD: You’re coming in on most days. Do you feel the city is back?
L.H.: It’s back but different. Traffic is back. But then you walk into a building like this.…I can go days where I never ride the elevator with another person. As much as I want everybody back, it’s going to be strange when they do come back. It’s like, hey you’re taking up my air space. I think we’re all kind of disturbed at the rising crime. Some of these stories that remind me of the first time I lived here in the ’80s. We’re not there yet. But some of the stories, people having been pushed on subways…and I was a guy who rode the subway every day to and from work. And I don’t know anymore. I really liked the spontaneity of the subway.
WWD: You’ve been doing essays on “Nightly News.” What prompted those and are you conscious about not straying too far into opinion?
L.H.: We did a lot around the pandemic. What made that a subject that I felt I could opine on a little bit, was the fact that we were all in this. This was not me reporting on something really horrible that happened in country X or state B. This is something that was happening to all of us, and we were all scared out of our wits. And I think it challenged us in a way that no one really understood at the time. I tried to be a voice of putting this in perspective and why it is so different and what’s being asked of us. But I write them very, very carefully to avoid what I think are crossing any major lines. And I do have this platform, I do have a voice. And I do use it occasionally. But I try and walk up to a line where I’m not giving an opinion, but more perspective. Sometimes the news is coming at us now. Like it’s coming through a firehose, and this is a moment that we could say, stand back and like, this is what we’re facing. Right? This is happening. We need to think about this. And, you know, much to my surprise, they’ve been received pretty well. You always get criticism, but I think generally they’ve been appreciated. Which is nice.
WWD: Why are you surprised that they’ve been received pretty well?
L.H.: Well, because we are so polarized, and I think we’re all kind of loaded for you know, big pushback every time you open your mouth.