NEW YORK, N.Y. – Watching a White House briefing in his office, Lester Holt said he had to walk away when exasperated reporter Brian Karem recently confronted Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the Trump administration’s hostility toward the press. Their exchange almost made him physically ill.
Holt’s no fan of press bashing, but fighting back that way is decidedly not his style.
“I understand his frustration, but I thought that we just can’t be trapped into that sort of thing,” the NBC “Nightly News” anchor said. “We can take the hits.”
Holt, 58, exudes an aura of calm on the set, so much so that it’s surprising to hear him talk candidly about how tough it was to replace Brian Williams as NBC News’ chief anchor. Two years removed from that drama, he’s in a tight battle for supremacy with ABC’s David Muir for viewers and advertising dollars in the dinner hour.
There were moments after replacing Williams, Holt conceded, “when I thought, ‘Is this really what I want to do?'”
To rewind, Holt was elevated after Williams was found to have misrepresented his role in covering some news stories. Holt filled in during a limbo period when Williams was suspended, earning the role permanently when it was decided in June 2015 that Williams would not return to the job.
His first challenge was sifting through all manner of advice.
“It was all of this ‘make it your own’ and ‘you’re the guy at the helm’ and ‘act like you own it,'” he recalled. “That’s easy for people to say. But under the circumstances, you’re inheriting a successful broadcast, you’re working with a staff that has taken an emotional hit and there’s this whole confidence thing. I’ve always been confident in my abilities, but this was an extraordinary challenge. All these things were coming together and, oh, by the way, you want to maintain the ratings. I’d never been under that kind of pressure before.”
Since Williams was the same age and had been atop the ratings for a decade, Holt had reasoned that he’d hit his career ceiling as the anchor of “Today” and “Nightly News” on the weekends, along with as “Dateline NBC.”
“I don’t want to say that in a bitter way, it was just, this is probably as far as I’m going to go, and this isn’t half-bad,” he said. “There was no sense of regret. I had stopped on the rung of the ladder I was on and was enjoying the view.”
Most people at NBC felt Holt was a decent, thoughtful man and were rooting for him, said veteran television producer Tom Bettag, who was working at NBC with Ted Koppel at the time. That helped the staff navigate a painful time, he said.
“I was fearful that I would not be accepted,” Holt said, “that I had to earn my right to sit there and put my foot down and say no, we need to do the story this way or I don’t feel comfortable with that. For a long time, I think I was a bit more passive than I should have been.”
The feeling that “Nightly News” was now his show crept up on him. “I can’t even tell you what day it happened,” he said.
Holt loves to take the show out of the studio and has made those journeys his “Nightly News” signature. He’s travelled to South Korea, Israel and England so far this year, along with multiple trips within the U.S.
“Lester likes that human contact at the root level, in the trenches,” said NBC News Chairman Andy Lack. “He can interview presidents and kings — he knows that comes with the territory and there’s news to be made — but what really gets his blood flowing is the travel to places where people’s lives are on the line.”
After leaving NBC to teach at the University of Maryland, Bettag and his students studied how the NBC, ABC and CBS evening news programs covered the presidential campaign and the early days of President Trump’s administration. They found Holt the most even-handed anchor, one most aware that he’s speaking to people with differing views, Bettag said.
That was almost to a fault; NBC could be criticized for not being more aggressive in fact-checking political claims, Bettag said.
Holt has certainly not been as biting as CBS’ since-departed Scott Pelley, who attracted notice with blunt assessments of Trump’s actions, including calling one statement “divorced from reality.” Holt doesn’t think Pelley was out of line but, again, it’s not Holt’s style. He’s conscious of not wanting to appear to be piling on.
“Sometimes you lean back and think, ‘how am I going to write this?'” he said. “But my first duty is to make people understand why something is unusual, why it might be provoking a lot of discussion or outrage.”
Evening newscasts haven’t seen the “Trump bump” in ratings their cable counterparts have. Holt suggested it’s because the shows have to serve a wider audience.
“We’re not tempted to go down the road of ‘all politics, all the time,'” he said. “MSNBC does that extraordinarily well. To the extent that it has cost us some viewers, c’est la vie. … Not everybody is interested in the latest presidential tweet, or at least not 15 minutes on it.”
Holt maintained the “Nightly News” ratings lead, at least at first. Between September 2014 and 2015, NBC averaged 8.66 million viewers to ABC’s 8.29 million, the Nielsen company said. So far this year, the broadcasts are essentially tied (ABC has 8.43 million to NBC’s 8.41 million), but ABC clearly has momentum. Lack said he’s more concerned with ratings among younger viewers where NBC leads, since those are used for most advertising sales.
“I want to be No. 1 in everything,” Holt said. “It just makes my life easier that way. I’m old-fashioned in that I want the most seats in the theatre filled.”