Lester Holt has reported from the world’s hot spots, covering war, politics and even the Olympics. As co-anchor of NBC Today, he uses all his anchor muscles to switch from the day’s breaking news to the best way to roast a chicken.
Q: Why did you become a journalist?
I was always very interested in news as a kid. I read the newspaper and watched the news. We were a big NBC family while I was growing up. I was lucky enough to be able to learn from the people I watched, including John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel.
Q: Did you ever want to pursue another profession?
My brother was into radio and for a while I wanted to be a disc jockey. I’d practice with a record player and microphone. But the DJ thing was short-lived.
Q: Have you watched big stories break while being away?
Let’s just say that when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, I was in Iraq. When Princess Diana died, I was in El Salvador. And when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded, I was changing planes at Heathrow Airport in London on my way back from Beirut. I’m almost afraid to open the paper when traveling overseas.
Q: You’ve done some extensive reporting from the world’s hottest trouble spots. What do you seek in the reporting process?
With the exception of Somalia, I’ve seen no major battles. What I find fascinating from a cultural standpoint is that these people from these troubled places are no different from you or me. When you strip away the politics and disputes, we’re all same — we want to take care of our families and put food on our tables. The commonality of interests and values is startling. Almost makes you wonder why we are fighting?
Somalia was very difficult both as journalist and as a human being. I was in Somalia at the height of famine and civil war. There was no government, no law, and it was clearly in anarchy. As much as we try to be detached, it’s hard as a father to watch children starving or to see people in such desperate straights. Human suffering is universally abhorrent, and it’s no sin to feel that deeply.
I find Arab culture fascinating. Arabs are a very hospitable, warm people, which is not the image you tend to see in media. We tend to focus on the flame, but we need to widen the lens of our coverage to put stories in their proper perspective. Not everyone thinks a certain way or condones certain acts or is even involved in certain acts.
Q: What is it about journalism that keeps you engaged?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I like being in the know, and I’m a naturally curious person. I enjoy history and am fascinated by how things in the modern world link back to something in history. I like being part of big story, even when on vacation.
Q: How important is mentoring in developing future journalists?
Within the newsroom there are kids starting out or new reporters, and sometimes we veterans tend to lose patience with them. But it’s our responsibility to nurture them along. I was fortunate and got some huge breaks. I was reporting news at age 22. I was young and made a lot of mistakes, but good people were there setting me straight, helping me not make the same mistakes again.
I try to be an example and remain very positive from a professional standpoint in terms of how I treat people. In newsrooms, we spend a lot of time around each other. We may not have equal responsibilities for the product, but I respect everyone who works with me as an equal. Watch who you like; observe what it is about them that makes them a great communicator.
Q: Do you see differences between network and cable news?
I straddled the line for a number of years. I was at MSNBC, then added NBC, and now I’m just with NBC. Cable by its nature has to keep the story going. The viewer is invited into the process. As I learn something, they learn it. As a result, sometimes it’s rough around the edges.
Broadcast news has the luxury of time to prepare shows. There are fewer surprises in broadcast news. When something big is breaking, I love when MSNBC calls. I’ve been doing some of the reporting on the crisis in the Middle East.
Q: In the 1990s you played a newscaster in several Hollywood movies — Primal Fear, The Fugitive and Miracle on 34th Street. What’s the Hollywood experience like?
When I was in Chicago, The Fugitive movie was coming, and the director knew one of the reporters (at WBBM-TV). He asked if I would do a cameo. Through that experience, I joined SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild), and then you get called when Hollywood comes back to town to film.
Two experiences caused me to hang it up, however. One was when I was supposed to have a real part. I thought, “I’m not really an actor.” The other was an episode of Chicago Hope, in which the president was in town, and there were shots fired. They had me do a scene in breaking news but then they laid in our actual graphics. It was easy to be confused and think it’s real. I thought “journalistically, this doesn’t wash,” so I decided it was time to hang it up. I’m also in U.S. Marshals. In the remake of Miracle on 34th, you only heard my voice while the little girl was switching news channels.
Q: How do you make the switch from hard news to cooking and celebrity interviews?
I’ve been at the Today show for three years now, but it was very difficult at first because for the bulk of my career I was a hard news guy. At Today you get to exercise all of your anchor muscles. One minute you’re talking about the war, economy or politics, and 10 minutes later you’re covering eight great ways to cook salmon. The show gives me license to show my real self. The expectation is that people will get hard news but also some lighter stuff. These are not silly stories. They are not as heavy as world peace, but we are all consumers looking for better methods of saving, and we are all cooks trying to feed our families.
Q: You’ve covered sports, wars and elections, arguably some of the most intense beats in American journalism. Do you have a favorite beat?
If I have a specialty, I’d say it’s aviation and military. My sports coverage has included the last two Olympics, mainly in an anchor role. I was reporting sights and sounds, and by no means am I a sports guy.
I covered politics at the anchor desk for MSNBC. It doesn’t get any better than the 2000 presidential election. We’ll never have another story that so captivated the entire country in which no one dies. I went into a mild depression when the Supreme Court ruled because I couldn’t believe it was over.