NBC News journalist Lester Holt has made history: Earlier this month, he became the first Black solo anchor of a network television station.
However, Holt, who replaced Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News, told ESSENCE.com that he refuses to let his new title override his passion for journalism. He took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, being an inspiration to his sons and the importance of keeping the art of reporting in journalism.
What does being the first Black solo anchor of a network television station mean to you? That is a big deal.
To be quite honest, the biggest deal for me in all of this is having one of these [nightly news anchor] jobs. There’s only three of them, and they don’t come open very often. That in itself is huge. To be the first African-American to anchor one of these broadcasts solo is just icing on the cake. We don’t get into this business to necessarily make history, but at the same time, I’m not going to ignore it. I realize that it’s an inspiration. I realize that young people can turn on the TV, look up and say, ‘Hey, he looks kind of like me.’ And that’s a great thing.
That absolutely is a great thing.
Our country is so many shades right now, and minorities are quickly becoming the majority. We come in all forms and shapes and colors, and this is a national broadcast. You should be able to turn on the news and see people who look like people you see in your community. Thankfully, NBC News has rich diversity in our on-air staff as well as off-air. It’s important that we see diversity in our culture and in all the other things that make us who we are.
Do you think that you being the face of the network news will have an effect in our racially charged society?
I wouldn’t put myself out there and say that I’m going to singularly solve some of the racial issues in this country just by my presence, but let’s face it: Over time, as people begin to see a broader fabric of faces across all parts of life, they become more comfortable and it fosters understanding. That’s been the history of our country. And suddenly, you see African-Americans in these kinds of positions that you previously didn’t see them in.
What are your thoughts on the overall coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement?
It’s an important movement, and it has unfortunately been defined by various ugly incidents. These kinds of things need to be an ongoing dialogue. Probably the most difficult thing with the whole movement is every event has been different. Every police encounter has different circumstances, different evidence. But you have to put that aside and understand that the Black Lives Matter movement is making a larger point in our society, and I do think that it’s creating a good kind of conversation in this country without necessarily making a judgment on every encounter.
Shifting gears, you seem to be a very proud dad. What lessons do you hope your sons can take from you?
I’ve got two sons—one’s 28 and one’s 25—and your premise is absolutely right: I’m a very proud dad. What I tried to teach them, and I see it in them, is respect. I think it’s the most important part of who we are—the ability to respect people, respect their views, to be able to listen and have good dialogue with people, to be able to disagree in a civil way. That’s how you learn. In our case, it makes for a more effective newsroom when we respect each other. One of my sons is a journalist, and I remind him that you have to respect the people you cover. I talk to people sometimes at the lowest points in their life—they just lost their home, maybe they lost their family member—and I always remind myself that the last thing they need is my camera and microphone in their face. I want them to understand that I respect and I approach our conversation with respect and compassion. And that’s something I really try to teach my boys.
What do you find most exciting about taking on this role?
I think there are many things exciting about this role. One of them is as a journalist, it gives you such high-level access. People take your calls. Sources take your calls. High-profile figures take your calls in a way they might not otherwise have.
Are there any opportunities in particular that you’re looking forward to?
I like to report from the field. The wonderful thing about my previous status here [at NBC] when I anchored weekends was that I had weekdays to go out and cover stories. I made it very clear that I’m going to bring that same sense to the Nightly News chair. When it warrants, we’re going to take the broadcast on the road. We’ve already been doing that in the time that I’ve been filling in. We were in Baltimore for the Freddie Gray story, we were in North Charleston for the Walter Scott story, we were in Philadelphia for the Amtrak crash, we were in Central Texas during the flooding a few weeks ago. That’s when I’m in my element. It’s nice to sit on that big, polished glass set in my suits, but where I’m most comfortable and when I’m most fulfilled is when I’m out just being a reporter.
What do you think reporting from the field can bring to the broadcast?
It transcends this notion that the anchor is just a reader. I’ve never bought into that notion, but I know that it’s out there. But what I want people to know is that I have a deep investment in this broadcast. We’re reporters; that’s our first job. You can say you’re an anchor or this or that, but at the end of the day, we should be out there asking the questions and reporting the stories, and that’s really what nightly news should be all about.