COMMENTS: On the Telephone with Lester Holt

As part of its promotional efforts to introduce its new Nightly News anchor, the public relations people at NBC News slotted me in for a 15-minute q-&-a with Lester Holt on the telephone. Holt likened himself to an air traffic controller handling landing slots as they piled up over LaGuardia Airport.

In order to cover as many issues as possible in the landing slot provided for me, I e-mailed him my six questions in advance. With the questions thus stipulated, our exchange was more conversational than a formal question-&-answer interview, so I am paraphrasing his answers here rather than quoting him verbatim. To make sure my paraphrases were not misleading, I ran them past the PR people at 30 Rock.

I was most impressed by his answer to #5, and his reflections on the role of the newscast anchor in the social media age. I suppose that impressed me most because I happen to agree with it.

Here is my pre-interview submission: "Some of my questions are based on premises that I have generated from my own work. Since I do not want these assumptions to seem like an ambush in an interview, I thought it would be wiser to submit my questions in writing in advance. In this way, if you cannot answer any question because you challenge my assumption, you can do so directly, without being evasive or seeming to stonewall. Since I am submitting my questions in writing, please feel free to answer them by e-mail in writing, if you would prefer. Otherwise I look forward to talking by telephone, as agreed."

Here are the results:

1.You have been given the job of nightly anchor without the accompanying position of managing editor, as is customary. You know that my opinion is that the managing editor title is honorary and symbolic, not functional, so the nature of your relationship as anchor with the executive producer will be no different from that of your predecessors. Am I correct in this opinion? If not, which of the traditional roles and responsibilities of the anchor will you not be exercising because of your lack of managing editor status?

No, in the process of daily story selection the title of managing editor included the power of veto, or insistence on inclusion. Without such a title the anchor is merely one of a group of three that makes daily decisions by consensus, the other two being the executive producer and the senior broadcast producer. Holt's role involves persuading the other two, if there is a disagreement, not overruling them, a role he has always occupied, never having been the managing editor of anything. As for long-term strategic planning by NBC News management -- as opposed to daily story conferences -- Holt expects to have a consultative role not a decision-making one.

2.As you know, I have found it useful to describe NBC Nightly News as a "Goldilocks newscast," positioning itself midway between the format, style and story selection of the rival newscasts at ABC and CBS on a series of different metrics. There is an alternate way to differentiate the three newscasts: not as positions on a linear spectrum, but in triangular fashion, characterizing each as having skills and specialties that are distinct from the other two. What triangulated specialties does NBC's newscast possess that I am overlooking with my Goldilocks formulation?

Holt asserts that he makes it a point of principle not to scrutinize the content of his rival newscasts, so he does not feel qualified to characterize the relative strengths of the three. He says he routinely watches ABC World News Tonight and CBS Evening News, live, out of the corner of his eye, on monitors at the anchor desk. I find this claim credible, since he congratulated both his rivals for producing a quality newscast. If he were watching closely, that compliment would apply only to one of them. The hallmark attribute he claimed for NBC Nightly News was "relevance," a term that one hears so frequently from broadcast journalists to describe their product that it has become devoid of meaning.

3.Specifically, for many years, both before and after the death of Tim Russert, a unique hallmark of NBC Nightly News, and NBC's news division generally, was the pre-eminence of its DC Bureau. In recent years, NBC has scaled back inside-the-Beltway. For example: the White House is no longer the most important correspondent position; the 2014 mid-term elections received record low coverage; no replacement has been hired to fill Lisa Myers' investigative position; the DC bureau is no longer assigned the daily political agenda-setting hour at 9am on MSNBC. Should the DC bureau and coverage of the role of the federal government have pride of place on the NBC Nightly News? Or is it appropriate that its role has been scaled back?

Holt refuted the claim that the DC bureau has lost its pre-eminence recently, either compared with its status under Russert, or compared to the other two bureaus. He emphasized that NBC News has a full-time Congressional correspondent in Kelly O'Donnell, the mention of which I interpreted as a reference to ABC's lack thereof. My statistics do indeed show that NBC's DC bureau is vibrant vis--vis ABC, but not vis--vis CBS. He defended the recent heavy coverage of local stories (Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia) on his national newscast by invoking the most recent such local headline, the AME church massacre in Charleston SC, as an event of national and historical scope.

4.Concerning the relationship of NBC Nightly News to its NBC-Universal corporate siblings: at the moment there is minimal visibility for MSNBC (Andrea Mitchell aside), CNBC (no coverage of Greece & Euro, very little on the Pacific Trade debate), The Weather Channel (extreme weather is covered by meteorologists like Al Roker rather than climatologists in the context of global warming), or Telemundo (Latin America, except for Cuba, is low on Nightly's agenda). Can we expect similar disdain for NBC Sports next summer in Rio de Janeiro? Will Nightly News, under your anchorship, discontinue its shameful shilling for your corporate sibling NBC Sports and its Olympics coverage?

There was no sign of enthusiasm from Holt for expanding or deepening the synergies between his newscast and other parts of NBC-Universal's newsgathering operation. He said he consulted the feed from his corporate siblings at his daily assignment meetings but gave no indication that he was interested in giving them especial prominence, nor in cross-promoting his own newscast on those sibling channels. I told him that I mentioned the Olympics merely as a provocation and did not need to hear his answer. He understood the exchange in the spirit in which it was framed.

5.The prospects for audience growth for your newscast lie not in television, a mature medium, but online, specifically in mobile video. Is it your view that the traditional 120-second-long correspondent's package is the appropriate format for re-purposing in mobile video? If not, and if mobile video requires a different tempo and visual style from television, does this mean that NBC Nightly News will adapt its style to make its content re-purposeable? Or does it mean that packages have to be produced in two separate visual styles: one televisual, one mobile?

Holt has a clear strategy for expanding his newscast through social media, but it is not by retooling its visual style. He is committed to promoting his correspondents as experts in their various beats, consulting with them before airtime on how to preview their packages, and having them provide supplemental and detailed information on their reporting, using their identities as an NBC brand to make it accessible on social media not just at the newshour but round the clock. In answering this question Holt was clearly talking the talk of the anchor as the enabler of a cohort of correspondents rather than the persona through whom all news flows each evening.

6.Last, on a personal note, Brian Williams confessed that it was when he stepped away from the newsroom that he became "sloppy" and told tall tales. Has NBC News management applied those lessons to you? Have you been instructed that you may not promote the newscast in non-journalistic environments such as late-night talkshows and comedy skits? If you have received no such instructions, will you restrain yourself from accepting such invitations voluntarily? What steps will you take to ensure that you remain a journalist and do not become a celebrity?

No, management had laid down no ground rules for avoiding show business. No, he would not talk about his predecessor's problems. No, he rejected the premise that it was possible for a nightly news anchor to fail to become a celebrity. The fact of appearing in millions of households each and every night and the fact of the television medium, which makes anonymity impossible, makes celebrity unavoidable. And no, Holt does not see that such celebrity inevitably leads to sloppiness in truthtelling (that was the closest I could come to get him to refer to Williams).


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