Lester Holt took an important lesson from NBC News’ coverage of Election Night 2016 that he hopes to apply for tomorrow night’s coverage of the network’s coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections.
“I think we need to let the story tell itself,” Holt told TVNewser. “We will go where the story takes us.”
The NBC Newsman says that he and his election night team have been reading polls, and data, “all of which can be good in terms of enrichment” as the team prepares for the night, but he’s personally trying to put aside any expectations. That’s understandable considering how the end result of the 2016 presidential election was far different than most thought it would be going into the night.
In addition to getting his thoughts about Tuesday night’s coverage, which for NBC begins at 8 p.m. ET, we spoke with Holt about the non-stop news cycle, the state of NBC News, and his future at Dateline.
*This Q&A was slightly edited for clarity
TVNewser: I’m interested in getting your thoughts about the constant barrage of news developments. Is it exhilarating? Is it exhausting? Maybe a combo of both?
Holt: It’s kind of a combo because I’m not only a newsperson, but I’m a consumer of news, and I’m an American. When you have bombs being mailed, people being mowed down in a synagogue, I react to those certainly as a human being, as an American. As a journalist, these are the stories that we certainly have to respond to in an aggressive manner. Any big news story energizes us and we’re in a period now where we’re under a barrage of major news stories. So I think there’s a sense of purpose given this time that we’re in, and I think we are energized on a lot of levels. That doesn’t of course mean that we aren’t affected by these things as human beings.
You have a new executive producer at NBC Nightly News in Jenn Suozzo. What are your thoughts about the broadcast under her leadership? Is anything different?
One of the conversations that Jenn and I had was basically me sharing advice that I was given when I was first given the Nightly News chair on an interim basis, and that was to act like you own it and put your all into it. She did that. We have been able to watch her grow.
Jenn and I go back to our days at MSNBC, and we worked on Weekend Nightly News for a few years together. Obviously, I know her work and it’s been fun to watch her mature and grow, and she is slowly owning this broadcast; when I say slowly, I mean that in a good way. I felt the same way when I took over this job, people said: “You have to own it. You have to do this, you have to do that,” and it doesn’t happen overnight. One day, you just sit down at the desk and say to yourself: “You know? This is my broadcast now. My imprint is on it.” And I think she’s going through that same thing. We’re delighted to have her. I couldn’t be more supportive and happy about having Jenn at the helm, and I think she will do great things for us.
Any progress on another interview with Pres. Trump? He still seems to be angry at NBC and has named you personally in light of his admission during your interview that he fired James Comey due at least in part to the Russia investigation.
Well, we’re always pitching to the White House, and I have certainly pitched interview opportunities. So far, we haven’t been able to put anything together, but a guy can keep trying, right?
What are your takeaways from the Megyn Kelly remarks? We’ve already heard from Al Roker and Craig Melvin.
I don’t think there’s anything I can really add to that. One of the best pieces of advice that I was given a long time ago was: “Stay in your lane,” so that’s what I’m going to do. That question, I’d ask it if I were in your shoes as well.
There have been some issues at NBC News in recent years (and at other networks, to be fair). You were obviously here for the Matt Lauer firing over sexual harassment allegations, and now Megyn Kelly is gone. How does the NBC News brand bounce back from events like these?
We are a resilient organization with a long, rich history of tradition; over 70 years, well certainly our broadcast, things are going to happen. But we’re all measured by how we get through them, and how we grow and how we learn. I feel that we are in a good place right now.
[NBC News chairman] Andy Lack has come under fire for how the news division 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 and [NBC News president] Noah Oppenheim have pushed back on the idea that the network stood in the way of Farrow. Do you have a take on what happened?
I don’t. This is a not a dodge, but I personally was not involved with any of that at the time. I think Andy and the network have been pretty forthcoming about how they see that situation and have gone on the record about it. I don’t think there’s really anything I could add from the sidelines.
So you feel confident about the direction of the news organization.
I think NBC News is in a good place. We have this incredible reach that we continue to expand, and I think our brand can only get stronger as we get recognized beyond the United States. I feel we’re in a good place.
I’d love to get your thoughts on Dateline right now. How much longer will we see you on the program?
When I was promoted to the Nightly News job, a lot of people speculated whether I would leave Dateline, I said: “There’s no way that I’d leave Dateline.” In many ways, it’s a different audience. It comes with a different set of expectations. But I’ve always said that Dateline correspondents are the best storytellers in the business. The producers are the best longform producers in the business. The richness of the stories, the attention to detail, and again the narration that’s weaved throughout it I think makes it a broadcast second to none. So I’m proud to be attached to it, and to the extent that I can report hours, that’s something I’m trying to do more, but that requires finding more time in my day. I’m immensely proud of Dateline and I don’t really foresee stepping away from it.
Who are some of your mentors, and some of the folks who have given you the best advice over your career?
Probably the most influential mentor I had was a guy who many New Yorkers remember named Jerry Nachman. Jerry was a real character. A great New York newsman. He worked at New York Post, at WNBC, at WCBS Radio. He hired me as a 20-year-old kid in San Francisco, and essentially brought me to New York. I was a reporter at Channel 2 when I was 22 years old and that’s because Jerry took a chance on me.
It’s funny you should mention mentorship because it’s one of the things I talk a lot about when I go out. We need mentors now more than ever who are able to support the next generation of journalists. To offer advice. I try to be that guy to as many young people around here as I can. I think that’s incredibly important because it was such an important part of my career.