Lester Holt was on a rare family vacation in Paris last Thursday with his wife, Carol, a real estate broker, and their two adult sons, when he heard about the racially motivated massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I woke up and started my day, and at some point in the morning, I picked up my laptop and logged on to see what was in the news,” Holt, 56, told The Daily Beast the day after his inaugural broadcast Monday evening as the permanent anchor of NBC Nightly News—the network’s new alpha male chosen to replace the embattled Brian Williams.
“And the next web page I went to was an airline booking site, to see if it was at all possible to get there in time for the broadcast,” Holt continued, “and it simply wasn’t.”
Word of Holt’s promotion to the top of the NBC’s food chain—which he learned of shortly before leaving the country in a meeting with news division chairman Andy Lack—had already leaked out on Wednesday night, around the same time that members of the historic Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the so-called Holy City’s most prominent black congregation, were taking part in their weekly Bible study.
Nine of the church members didn’t survive the savage attack by a 21-year-old, gun-wielding white supremacist. After four tricky months filling in during Williams’s unpaid suspension for embellishing his experiences in journalism, Holt—an all-purpose utility man since joining MSNBC 15 years ago from the CBS station in Chicago—was keenly aware of his rising responsibilities as NBC’s new lead anchor.
In other words, he was happy to ruin his Parisian holiday, even if his wife and kids were happier that he couldn’t.
“It was the first thing I thought of,” Holt said from the NBC News Washington bureau, where he was spending Tuesday morning conferring with congratulatory colleagues. “That’s my nature. When something like that happens, my first thought is, ‘How do I get there?’”
For instance, he recounted, back in April 2013, it was Holt’s day off when the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, and he didn’t even bother to ask before booking himself on the next flight. “I just grabbed my suitcase and started packing,” he recalled.
“In this case,” he added, “there was a time-distance equation that didn’t add up.”
Serendipitously or not, there seems to have been more than a little kismet in Holt’s ascension to his new gig as broadcast television’s first African-American solo anchor of a flagship evening newscast, at a moment when the knotty issue of race is dominating the American agenda.
“You know, I’ve never identified myself professionally through a racial lens, but I recognize it’s important,” said Holt, whose mother is Jamaican and whose father, a retired Air Force non-commissioned officer, is African-American—which is also how Holt identifies himself. “It’s important that people turn on the TV and see people who look like themselves,” he said. “We’ve got a very diverse roster of correspondents at NBC.”
Indeed, the first three segments on Monday’s Nightly News with Lester Holt, as the 6:30 p.m. weeknight program is now officially titled, concerned the political and societal fallout from last week’s massacre and President Obama’s use of the N-word during a discussion of race relations with podcast host Marc Maron.
The two lead pieces were by veteran reporter Ron Allen and White House correspondent Kristen Welker, both African-Americans. The kicker story, meanwhile, dwelt on the impact of the shooting incident on Charleston’s black and white communities.
Which is to say, race consumed a good half of a newscast that, without commercials, runs only 17½ minutes.
Holt, for his part, is careful in his comments about racial matters; he declined to address the controversy surrounding the defense and subsequent apology by Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd—who also appeared on Monday night’s broadcast—for airing a piece on MTP about gun violence that featured only interviews with black convicted murderers.
“I’m not read into that, to be really honest,” Holt said. “I didn’t see that. I was traveling back from Europe.”
As for Obama’s use of the ugly epithet, “I’d like to stay in my wheelhouse,” Holt demurred. “I wouldn’t want to make a comment specifically on what the president said, but it was significant. It’s a word you don’t hear from presidents, and he said it to make a specific point. It was newsworthy, of course. It was near the top of our broadcast.”
In contrast to Williams and Williams’s longtime predecessor, Tom Brokaw—or, for that matter, David Muir at ABC World News Tonight and Scott Pelley at CBS Evening News—Holt didn’t receive the title of managing editor and therefore is not the final authority on what is or isn’t included in his newscast.
“I know everyone seems to think this is a big deal, but I frankly don’t,” Holt said, agreeing with the notion—advanced by NBC executives based on their recent hard experience—that the managing-editor title potentially gives an anchorman too much power.
“With every broadcast I’ve been on, including this one for the last five months, I’ve been considered a leader in the newsroom,” said Holt, who had spent years anchoring the weekend Nightly News as well as cohosting the weekend Today show along with the weekly newsmagazine Dateline. “I have a strong editorial voice. It’s a collaborative process. Several times a day we meet and talk about ‘What’s the lead?’ ‘Is that the story?’ ‘What’s the treatment?’ I have a seat at the leadership table and a voice in the editorial process.”
Holt acknowledged that, now more than ever, his NBC News colleagues are apt to look to him for guidance. “I think it’s fair to say that I’m holding a leadership position, which is not the same as a management position,” he said. “I think people are taking their cues from me. I saw that a lot over the last five months. I’m gratified by that. It’s a little weighty.”
Holt added that when Andy Lack told him the job was his, he might not have been surprised—after all, this had been widely predicted for weeks—but nor was he blasé about the opportunity.
“From the beginning, when I was asked to fill in for six months, I took that as it was offered, and that was my attitude the entire time,” Holt said. “This was a fill-in arrangement. The time will come, and whatever decision they make is whatever decision they make. I know there was a sense that I was walking around with all this knowledge all these months. I really wasn’t.”
When Lack informed him “that I was going to be the next anchor of Nightly News, my reaction was something like, ‘Wow,’” Holt recounted. “And then I made some comment like, ‘To actually hear those words—that’s pretty overwhelming.’ …These jobs don’t come open. There are only three of them.”
Holt’s competitors apparently have been gracious. CBS’s Pelley (whose broadcast trails in third place) sent him a note, and ABC’s Muir (who has been leading Holt lately in a hard-fought ratings battle) sent him not only a note but a lovely welcoming gift that Holt declines to specify.
Other than sweet nothings, Holt has had little to say about Williams’s continued presence at MSNBC as a breaking news and live special events anchor and at NBC as a fill-in breaking news anchor, as the press release stated, “when Holt is not available.”
Will Holt ever not be available?
“Oh, sure, all the time,” he answered. “I’m in meetings right now in Washington, and this is a studio facility, but in the next hour I won’t be. It has always worked at our network—and, I suspect, every other network—that there has to be somebody in place during the day to get on the air if something happens.”
And no problem if that “somebody” happens to be Williams.
Holt declined to address reports that now that he’s the top gun, his representatives are pressing NBC management to raise his compensation—said to be around $4 million a year in his current deal—to a pre-crisis Brian Williams level of supposedly $10 million a year or more. Likewise, Holt—who has given up weekend Today and Nightly—said “the issue of Dateline [and Holt’s anchoring chores on that program] is still up for discussion; we haven’t gotten to that and we’ll be talking about that.”
“I’d rather not say,” he answered with a laugh.