“Thanks for your patience,” the familiar baritone says on the other end of the phone line. But Lester Holt didn’t really need to apologize: The NBC Nightly News anchor was less than an hour late for our interview, and he had a good excuse for being tardy. “We had another event in the Rose Garden we had to cover,” he explains, referring to President Trump’s last-minute trade deal announcement.
Like all of his TV news colleagues, Holt is perpetually busy these days, scrambling to cover the chaos that is Washington, D.C., while trying to make sense of it all for viewers. He has certainly thrived in these turbulent times, with his May 2017 interview with Trump — soon after the president fired ex-FBI director James Comey — widely seen as a watershed moment in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. But Holt is also hell-bent on not letting Trump’s presidency eclipse other news: He has left his New York City home base more than a dozen times the past year to cover stories unrelated to the White House, and he’s hitting the road again this week, with plans to anchor Nightly News from five states in five days as part of his third “Across America” reporting tour. Before he packed his bags, Vulture caught up with Holt for a wide-ranging discussion on a slew of topics, including covering Trump, the never-ending battle for ratings supremacy, and why, three years after taking over Nightly News, he has no plans to give up his Dateline gig.
Every day now seems to bring an avalanche of news developments. Are you exhausted?
Exhausted probably isn’t the word. It’s just a different pace … a quicker pace. In many ways, it plays to what I’ve always loved about this business: Starting the day with a blank slate, something happens, and you have to react to it. But it definitely seems busier than it ever has been.
And yet with everything going on right now, you’re taking the time to do your “Across America” road trip. Do you have to think twice about doing this sort of thing now?
Well, I think it’s important to get into different communities around the country and see issues that may or may not relate directly to the national politics that we cover. Things that are affecting one community, chances are they’re affecting other communities. On this Across America tour, for example, we’ll be going to Florida. They’re dealing with this horrible red tide issue right now that threatens to move to other states, so it’s a chance for me to get on the ground there and put more attention on it. We’ll surely get into immigration when we’re in San Diego.
But it’s more than fostering a political discussion. We talk about how divided this country is, but I don’t believe most people get up every morning and want to talk about politics. They want to talk about the cost of school and paying off their student loan, getting a job, technology, protecting their identity, all this other myriad of things. I want to make sure that we’re a newscast that reflects the things that are affecting people directly.
Do you think the media are covering Trump too much? Some critics argue the focus on scandals means other issues go unexplored. But I also think there’s a case to be made that Trump is such a crisis for democracy, there should actually be more focus on the White House.
There’s no question we had to adapt to the style of this administration. But what we’ve done is made sure we’re fulfilling our role as a port, as I call it. It’s a stormy sea out there. Every day you’re getting battered this way and that way. [Nightly News] is a place that people can pull into port every night for a half hour. We know we have to tell you about the big political stories, and we certainly do that, but we’ve got to make sure this newscast reflects those other things that are affecting people’s lives. And very often, it’s not whatever the president tweeted that day.
Even some TV anchors who pride themselves on being nonpartisan — like Jake Tapper on CNN — are becoming less shy about expressing their frustration with the president. That’s not something you or your counterparts at ABC or CBS do. Is it frustrating? You are a citizen, so you must have opinions.
Well, I’m not a robot. And hopefully we deliver the news in a way that acknowledges what is unusual, because that’s one of the definitions of the news. But my feeling is there are plenty of places where you can get those robust discussions, those points of view, the arguing. Nightly News has to be that port in the storm.
When I do these stories, I always try to put myself in your living room, your kitchen. I want to make sure people can get it as straight as possible: Here’s the information, here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, and here’s the things that are unusual or different. It really allows the audience to become critical thinkers.
I get that. But there is precedent for network anchors breaking out of that straight-shooter mentality. Walter Cronkite did it with his 1968 commentary on Vietnam. Edward R. Murrow took on Joe McCarthy. We now have a president who talks about you and your colleagues as “enemies of the people.” How can that not have an effect on how you do your job? Why not speak more forcefully?
It’s not fun. Nobody likes to hear that. But I’ve learned to let it roll off my back because I believe that people know this broadcast — its 70-year legacy of integrity, excellence, and trust it has built with viewers — and I refuse to believe that can be tweeted or insulted away with a few remarks. Listen, I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s helpful. But we just focus on what we have to do. If we’re going to let things like that bother us, then we shouldn’t be doing what we do. I think the only thing that I’ve publicly reacted to was the “enemy of the people” remark. That crossed a line for me, because that kind of language could have an effect on the safety and well-being of my colleagues. That was the only thing that caused me grave concern.
The thing I like to remind younger journalists about is, this was never really a popularity contest. It’s a popularity contest in the fact that we’re rated, and that’s part of our world. But we didn’t get into journalism to be liked. I don’t do this to be liked. I do it to be respected.
During your now-famous interview with President Trump, he admitted the real reason he fired James Comey. That came about two years after you officially took over Nightly News. Was it a turning point?
I don’t know if it was a turning point or not. Every journalist I know, we want to do work that makes an impact and that hopefully people will talk about. There was no special sauce, there was no magic in that interview, other than the president had fired Comey as FBI director. I was the first reporter to sit down with him in the intervening time, and there were no “gotcha” questions. I asked what I asked, and he owned it. He owned that this was his decision and went on to defend it.
After the fact, of course, you start to realize the potential importance of what was said. There’s been no victory lap. I look up at the TV from time to time and I see that clip playing. I get only the satisfaction of knowing that as a reporter, I’ve done work that has had impact. But it’s certainly one I’m going to remember. When people ask me the most significant or interesting interviews I’ve done over my career, as of right now that’s number one.
You said the president owned it, but he more recently, he’s tried to claim you and NBC “fudged” his remarks.
That’s one I just won’t dignify. [Laughs.] The interview’s been out there for what, 16, 17 months? I’ll just leave it at that.
Do you think you will get the chance to interview Trump again?
I have certainly tried. I have reached out to the White House to schedule interviews with him on various topics. So far, they have not agreed.
Is this White House any different in terms of getting access to the president? Typically, administrations will rotate interviews with the networks among all the anchors.
In many ways, this White House has been very accessible, but not always through the traditional routes. It’s not necessarily a lot of sit-down interviews. I’ll be honest, I don’t have a fair point of comparison because I have not been a White House correspondent, and was not in this job for much of the Obama administration. But what we’re not probably getting as much is the long exchanges with the president, to be able to challenge him and to really drill down on his thoughts on some issues. A lot of the access has been during signing ceremonies, hosting dignitaries from other countries, and the cameras get him for a few minutes.
Let’s talk about ratings. You’re clearly the leader in the demo that makes money for NBC News, adults between the ages of 25 to 54, but ABC has a few more overall viewers. Both networks really, really make a big deal out of the numbers. Does it really matter?
Let me start by saying that I’m a competitive person. I want to win everywhere, so I would love to win in every metric. The one that counts — the one that turns the lights on around here — is the one that we’re very successful in, so I take great joy in that. But in terms of chasing the ratings, whenever we’ve been challenged, my message to the team is, “Stay in what we do.”
What we do, we do very well. I always try to keep the focus on making sure that the broadcast is in the exact place where we want to be, and that place is in breaking news. We have exclusive reports. The thing that’s going to separate us from any other broadcast out there. We take the broadcast on the road. We get exclusive interviews. We break exclusive stories.
I don’t doubt Nightly is far more hard-news–oriented than ABC. But isn’t there still a decent amount of filler? It seems as if, in an attempt to gain a ratings edge, all three network newscasts spend too much time on softer segments. You’ve got less than 20 minutes after commercials, and some of it seems wasted.
I have to take umbrage with [what] you said about filler. Nothing we do on that newscast I would consider filler. What we do try to achieve every day is a sense of balance of the day. We’ve had tremendous success with what we call our “closers,” the stories that run at the end of the newscast. People stop me on a weekly basis and tell me, “I love those stories you do at the end. Sometimes they make me cry or they make me laugh.” We think it’s very important that people get a balance: You hear about this divided America, but let us take two minutes and introduce you to a person who has taken on some huge cause as an individual. Let us profile this soldier, or this nurse, or this police officer who’s doing something far beyond. Those stories, believe it or not, often get more attention than what we have as our lead story. Because we’re in the times we are, people need a place where they can get a touchstone, something that will say, Hey, it’s okay. We’re still great people in this country.
I get there’s a strong case for stories that reveal more about America than its leadership. But you, and especially ABC, make time for cute cat videos and storm footage that’s just there because it’s visually exciting. Is playing into Twitter trends or viral videos something you need to do?
We don’t want to be a broadcast that is somehow separated from society. If half the country’s going to work and remarking, “Did you see this? Did you see that?” we can’t pretend we’re not acknowledging that. It may not be the earth-shattering story of the day, but it’s part of the balance of a broadcast. That doesn’t become our entrée. It’s just the parsley, if you will, on the plate. There’s a balance with everything we do because it’s a precious 30 minutes, and as you point out, when you take away commercials it’s a pretty small hole we have to fill with news.
It’s a very small news hole and it keeps shrinking. Back in the 1990s, the dream of network news divisions was that one day they’d be able to do an hour-long nightly newscast. With networks doing so much content digitally, have you ever thought of doing an extra half-hour online? Or maybe do an extended show for MSNBC?
I’ve heard that discussion over the years. I’ll be honest, it hasn’t really come up in a big way since I’ve been doing the broadcast. We do occasionally do hour-long broadcasts after an exceptionally busy news story, like after a big event or an election. For many reasons it hasn’t happened, but I would welcome it. Obviously, the biggest challenge is how to tell our day in a half-hour format. We happen to think we do it very well, but there’s not a newsperson I know that’s not going to say, “More time is better.”
I’d like to talk about how you got where you are. Many past anchors came up the ranks as Washington correspondents, foreign correspondents, or maybe a combination of both. But you and your current peers don’t have the same background. You spent 20 years in local TV, then did a stint at MSNBC and, of course, Dateline NBC. Does that experience make you a different kind of network news anchor? Are you less the product of a certain kind of bubble?
I never really quite looked at it that way. I started my first network job at MSNBC in 2000. It was the beginning of this incredible five-year period of news — the 2000 election that turned into the recount, 9/11, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — so I was certainly exposed in a vital part of the coverage. And when I came over to the [broadcast] network side, in addition to anchoring the weekend broadcasts, I traveled all over the world: Afghanistan, Israel, Japan for the tsunami. You name it, I was there. It’s been a rich history of reporting experience.
When I talk to young people getting in this business and they say, “I want to be an anchor,” I say, “No, you want to be a reporter,” because that’s what we are at heart. All that experience in the field, whether it was local news or network, makes me a better anchor. I still have that itch whenever a big story happens to get out of here. I’m like, “When’s the next plane? Can we get on the air if we leave right now from there?” I’m a person of immense curiosity. I’m lucky to be in a place where we have the resources to scratch my itch to get out the door and cover news, wherever it may happen.
I want to be clear, that wasn’t any sort of implied insult when I noted you hadn’t been at the White House or a foreign correspondent.
I was just wondering if not doing a stint overseas or not having been part of the D.C. beat makes you approach your role differently. Do you think it influences how you think and act? You don’t have that “voice of God” feeling so common for anchors.
Yeah, I think possibly so. I hope I don’t bring a lot of ego to this job. I am naturally curious. I like intelligent, informed debate and conversation. I love the fact that I can do a newscast that hopefully gets people talking. I suppose not coming from a Washington background perhaps broadens my palate of experience that I can bring to the table.
You’re right, certainly that was the path for a lot of network anchors. But I don’t use the term “voice of God.” I know you’re half-joking, but a lot of people still have that perception. I don’t want people to think that because I’m in this job, I’m somehow this authority on everything. In fact, sometimes in this job, you have to be equally ignorant about everything. My thing every night is I want to sit at the dinner table with people. I want to ask the questions that they’re asking.
Is that one reason you’ve stayed on as Dateline host?
It was raised, whether I wanted to continue to do it. I immediately said, “Why wouldn’t I?” On a purely practical level, it exposes me to an audience that is in many ways different than the Nightly News audience. It also happens to be one of the best group of storytellers that I know. While a lot of the work is true crime, a lot of the things I’ve done on that program are certainly not: criminal justice reform, asthma in low-income housing areas, crime in Chicago. We’ve done a lot of hard-hitting stories. It’s not something I was eager to give up. I mean, it’s part of an already heavy workload, but when it was raised, I was like, “No, I’m good. I love Dateline.”
When I was a reporter based in New York in the late 1990s, I covered the TV news beat. And a few times, I remember going to small gatherings where Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather all hung out together. Do you socialize with your rivals?
Last time I saw the two of them, actually, was last week. There was an off-the-record meeting with the Iranian president, who was in town for [the United Nations General Assembly]. So we see each other, talk about the life of being network anchormen. I have a lot of respect for both the guys. We don’t pal around. I think the one time we did was by accident, and there’s probably a picture of it somewhere. We were all coming back from a hurricane and we ended up on the same airplane — not only on the same airplane, but sitting virtually next to each other. We posed for some pictures and had a lot of fun with that. We haven’t gone out, but you say that and I’m thinking, That might not be a bad idea. I think you planted something!
You are also the first African-American to solo anchor the news. Katie Couric recently talked about how sexism was a part of her life at CBS. I’m curious about how your background informs the job you do, and if racism has ever had an impact on your career.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a journalist, and I certainly understood racism was out there, but I never over-focused on it. Maybe I’m just kind of hardheaded. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, I pressed ahead, I looked for the opportunities, and I found mentors, which was hugely important in my upbringing as a journalist.
Who were your mentors?
Probably the most important, he’s now passed, was Jerry Nachman, who was a longtime New York newsman.
Ah, yes, he came up with “New York to the bone” at WCBS. And he loved talking to media reporters!
Yeah, he hired me as a 20-year-old kid in San Francisco at the CBS all-news radio station KCBS. He taught me the business and brought me to New York and put me on TV at the age of 22 at WCBS. And another woman you wouldn’t know, Denise Barclay. She was a public affairs director at KCRA in Sacramento. I knocked on the door there one day when I was 16 and I said, “Hey, can I get an intern job here? Can I volunteer to work for free?” She took me in as a 16-year-old kid and helped show me the ropes. She was critically important.
What do you think about the shape of newsrooms right now, particularly NBC News? Do you think there are enough women in positions of power?
I’ve been asked that question before: Are there enough women or minorities? I don’t know what the number is, and that’s the problem. That sounds flippant, but I don’t know what that number is. What I know is what I see in terms of the people I’m working with directly. I work with two women right now who are at the helm of this broadcast every day, so that’s what I see around me. I think it’s always important that your newsroom should look like the world you cover. It’s important that people can speak up, can bring something in like, “Hey, you may not understand this, but let me tell you about it from my perspective.” Those are incredibly important discussions. I can’t really give you a number that, if we had five more females or two more minorities, somehow this magic balance would be achieved. But it’s something we think about on a daily basis.
One of the reasons I asked that last question is because your boss, NBC News chief Andy Lack, has come under fire for how the company handled its investigation into Harvey Weinstein. Ronan Farrow was working on it at NBC News, but left in part because of disagreements with how to move forward with the story. Lack has disputed the idea he stood in the way of Farrow. What’s your take on what happened?
I’m not trying to avoid the question, but this is one of those areas where you stay in your lanes. In my particular lane, that story had not reached the broadcast level yet. When I say that, I mean it hadn’t come to Nightly News yet, and I didn’t have any knowledge of it, so I can only speak very generally. And generally, I would say the best practice in investigative journalism is always to take whatever time you need to get it right. Better to be last than to be first and get it wrong. That’s really all I can tell you. I know I would ask the same question of me too, and I wish I had more to tell you.
Right now, MSNBC is doing gangbuster ratings, particularly Rachel Maddow. But I don’t see Maddow on Nightly News much, or on the network during election coverage. Why isn’t there more crossover?
We want viewers to understand that we’re offering two different things. Nightly News focuses on the news of the day, what happened, what didn’t happen, what it means to you. Rachel’s broadcast is obviously very different. It’s Rachel’s point of view on the day’s news, and I don’t think it would necessarily be the kind of match she would want with us because of what she does every night. It’s two different offerings, apples and oranges.
One last thing: One of your sons is an anchor at WNBC, which is in the same building where you work. It has to be cool to work so closely with him, right?
It’s been fun. This is a kid who used to follow me to work at 5:00 a.m. when I was doing Weekend Today and he was in high school. Then he pursued television and journalism in college, worked jobs in Florida and Chicago, and landed here in New York a couple of years ago. It’s a blast, not only to sit in my office and watch him do the 4 o’clock news here every day, but then to get on the elevator and there’s your kid standing there in front of you.