Lester Holt, the host of NBC Nightly News, spoke at the 12th annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism in Cohen Auditorium yesterday. Holt’s conversation focused on “Media in a New Age: Fake News, Alternative Facts and What’s Next” and was part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
After University President Anthony Monaco delivered opening remarks, Film and Media Studies Program Co-Director Julie Dobrow introduced Holt and Jonathan Tisch (A ’76), the latter of whom moderated the discussion. Early on in the forum, Holt mentioned that, in spite of hosting an evening newscast, he is actually a morning person.
“I love doing Nightly News, [but] the one thing that I don’t like about Nightly News is that it’s at night,” he said.
Holt cited former Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley as his mentors in journalism during the forum. He reminisced about watching Brokaw when Holt was first beginning work at NBC as a quasi-intern, and how he eventually had his office moved next to Brokaw’s.
“[Brokaw has] been such an incredible source of advice and wisdom when I transitioned into this role, and continues to be,” he said.
Holt explained that President Donald Trump’s accusation that some news media outlets report false stories have partially strengthened NBC News’ mission because it is important to hold the government responsible for its actions, even if it sometimes causes NBC News to lose popularity with the president.
“We’re not gonna get knocked down from here,” he said.
In a roundtable discussion with members from several student media organizations earlier in the day, Holt added that government and the media have always had an adversarial relationship in the United States because reporters always crave more information. However, Holt believes that Trump has been more outspoken in his contempt for the news media than his predecessors.
“That’s troubling because even a lot of politicians who don’t like the media at least respect the idea that somebody needs to be a watchdog, somebody needs to be there to blow the whistle, somebody needs to be there to represent the public,” he said.
After discussing the Trump administration’s relationship with the press at the forum, Holt talked about his experience moderating the first presidential debate last year, and how being a moderator and being a journalist differ. He said there was a point in the middle of the debate when he just decided to ask the unanswered questions even if he risked not appearing even-handed. Holt said reactions to his performance post-debate were diverse and polarizing.
“‘Awesome job,’ ‘terrific,’ ‘loser,’ ‘pathetic,’” Holt recalled of the emails he read.
Holt later stressed the importance of geographic diversity, saying that part of why he broadcasts from the west coast rather than New York a few times every month is to convey to viewers that Americans hold a diversity of beliefs depending on where they live.
“People in New York may be horrified that somebody owns a gun,” he said. “But you know what? In a lot of parts of the country they own guns, and that’s okay.”
He added that, in terms of racial and gender diversity, NBC News is doing well, but that it is difficult to measure this across the entire organization because of the different programming. He emphasized the importance of having a multitude of voices working for every media organization.
“I can speak up in some areas [where] someone else may not have experience,” he said.
Holt went on to offer advice for aspiring broadcast journalists, particularly highlighting the importance of being a good writer.
“You think of TV as all about pictures, and of course the pictures do drive the narrative in many ways, but writing is incredibly important,” he said.
After the forum, Holt answered a few audience questions, including one about moving forward in a country that has grown increasingly polarized, and discussed the importance of exposing oneself to a diversity of opinions.
“I try to watch some far-left and far-right products out there and just see what’s being talked about,” he said.
Holt concluded his talk by saying that if he were not a reporter today, he would be a bass player instead.
“I have a band, we’re called the 30 Rockers … it’s a group of fellow NBC folks and we sneak out of the building every Monday and rehearse,” he said.