With the Olympics, the Superbowl and the 70th Anniversary of the NBC evening news broadcast upon us, we could think of no better time to sit down with the anchor or NBC Nightly News’, Lester Holt. We caught up on good content, the world as a dinner dish, and the effects of citizen journalism…
From start to finish what would be your ideal food day?
It’s got to start with waffles. I love waffles, Belgian style waffles. Fresh strawberries and blueberries and real, warm maple syrup and crisp bacon. For lunch a really nice grilled chicken sandwich on ciabatta – get a little slice of avocado in there – and potato leek soup, and a glass of rosé. For dinner, I can go a lot of ways. Mexican’s my favorite – chips and guacamole and a chicken enchilada with verde sauce.
How do you stay informed? How do you consume your content?
The first thing I do is check our own proprietary news feed and news alerts. I go through those on my phone even before I turn the lights on in the morning in bed. Generally if something major happens overnight I’ll know about it. I try to time it so I can flip on the Today Show right at seven o’clock and see what the new footage is and what the new angles of stories are. Many are stories we may have covered the night before, or what’s occurred overnight. And then I go through three, four, five, six different publications depending on how much time I have in the morning, trying to get the various takes. We’re also in an environment right now where it’s really critical to find out what the President’s tweeting – and that’s going to dictate a lot of our day. He has certainly changed the dynamic of how we receive information from a president, so that’s part of the routine.
Do you find it hard to stay objective in this day and age? To not voice your opinions?
There are two things going on. Every president brings with him or her a set of ideals and policy initiatives – and they change, and we get that. Those are things that we like to cover. Tax, immigration, defense. For those, you do need to stay objective because those are important conversations. People have varying views and throughout our history that’s the relationship with media and administrations covering policies and directions. With this president, there’s also the added element of his personality; it is sometimes bigger than life – and the way he communicates is different. I think that we have to point those out. We have to point out to our viewers that ‘This is very different. This is not normal.’ We talk about tweets. We’ve never had a president that has tweeted in quite the same way in terms of true policy initiatives and directions – and sometimes contradicting himself. To point those out is not an editorial position, it’s not a bias, it’s simply pointing out that this is unusual. This is different. Here’s what it means. That’s our job.
Does reporting the news each night ever get to you? Do you bring it home with you?
Sure I do. There have been days where I’ve walked off the set and been like “Wow that was a heavy newscast. A lot of death, a lot of bad news.” We have to tell it because we curate the day every day and sometimes the day is very rough. I definitely feel it. I probably shouldn’t admit this but there are days that I’m thinking ‘wow, I’m not sure I would’ve watched today, it’s too much.’ Obviously that’s not good for my business to put that out there! But seriously, you do take it home – especially when I’m in the field and I’m doing stories. We take this broadcast on the road a fair amount, and when you’re in places where people are going trough tragedy or suffering you can’t help but take it home with you. I believe that compassion is a big part of what makes us better journalists and better broadcasters. We sometimes enter peoples’ lives when they’re at their lowest. They’re very vulnerable; they’ve experienced something unimaginable. I always try to put myself in their position. How would I deal with it? That makes me a more sensitive and better reporter in terms of how I approach people and how we cover those sorts of stories. I think it’s a good thing that I and others carry some of it home every night.
It’s coming up on the 70th Anniversary of the NBC Evening News broadcast. What do you attribute its longevity to?
It has always held a high standard and it’s always been that debrief of the day. Not only what happened but what it means in your life. I think that’s even more important now because there are so many news sources right now – so many places people get information. I always say from the moment we wake up until we go to bed at night we’re bombarded by people telling us what to think, whether it’s on Facebook or Twitter or a traditional news outlet. I always look at our nightly news broadcast as a place where people can come and filter past the noise of the day and get a down low “Here’s what we know happened.” I think that need is more critical than ever.
Are you excited about Hoda Kotb’s new role as co-anchor?
I’m a huge Hoda fan. And I mean this about everyone I work with: We’re all pretty much who you see on TV. When you see her and how warm and affectionate she is, her personality, that’s the person we see in the hallway. We were all delighted that she could step into the role so seamlessly.
Do you think it’s important right now to have two female co-anchors?
I think it’s all about having the right people in place – and right now Savannah and Hoda are clearly the right people. It works. The chemistry is there. Sometimes you don’t know until you put two people together. Throughout my career, I’ve been paired with various people and sometimes from the moment you’re together it’s like, “this works.” I think Hoda and Savannah are a great example.
Our audience is 85% female. Do you have something to say about the #MeToo movement?
It’s obviously an important discussion. I think it’s a given that any reasonable person understands that we all need to be treated with respect no matter who we are. Beyond that I don’t know that I can add anything to the conversation that hasn’t been said already.
How does social media affect what you do?
It moves so quickly and it has basically empowered users to become citizen journalists. The problem with it is: People are acting as citizen journalists but they’re not necessarily adhering to the basic rules of journalism. When we hear about something, we pick up the phone. We ask “Is this happening? How many people are involved? What do we know?” And then we go on the air with it. In the twitter world people just put it out there. We have to compete in a world where people are putting out information so far ahead of us because they don’t have to go through these filters – and that makes it a bit frustrating. I keep thinking we need to find a way to remind people that there’s still such value to traditional journalism and fact-checking and getting it right. All those things that we have to do on a daily basis for any story, that doesn’t happen in that world of citizen journalists.
And that’s not just for citizen journalists; publications often can break stories that aren’t necessarily true or fact-checked…
We hear this term “the media, the media.” And, what does that mean? Media is all of us. We all have ways to communicate right now, but we’re not all created equal. You talk about the 70th anniversary of evening news at NBC and the integrity and trust we’ve built over those years: You can’t tweet that away. You can’t insult that away. That’s something we’ve earned and people come to rely on it. But there are a lot of sources out there that are new and don’t get me wrong, there’s some terrific and edgy reporting…some folks going places that are opening our eyes. But there is the risk in this rush to compete, in this world of so many voices, that sometimes it’s going to be wrong. I think one of the good things about the scrutiny we’re under right now is that it’s made us all better. We’ve always had the need to get it right, but now there’s a sense of triple-checking it, quadruple-checking it. Because you want to stand up to your critics and say “No, we got it right.”
What’s your personal definition of good content?
Good content is information that not only informs but is put into perspective. I think it’s the most important part of what we do right now.
If you could sum up the world in a dinner dish, what would it be?
(Laughs) It’s one of those protein shakes where so much is put in it, it’s whirling around, and it may or may not come out tasting good.
Lester Holt, photographed at Sant Ambroeus West Village in New York, NY