Lester Holt on 'Nightly News': "Until the End, I Accepted This as a Temporary Assignment"

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Lester Holt

The new anchor of 'Nightly News' talks about his relationship with Brian Williams (he's a "pal"), not getting the managing editor title and how he'll put his stamp on the broadcast.

The June 18 announcement that Lester Holt will be the permanent anchor of Nightly News — while Brian Williams will move to cable network MSNBC — closes a particularly painful chapter at the network.

Holt, 56, has been Williams' able fill-in and the weekend anchor of Nightly since 2007, while also anchoring newsmagazine Dateline. His willingness to work multiple jobs and perseverance through marathon live anchoring situations (during the 2000 presidential election recount, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary) has earned a reputation as a work horse — and the nickname “iron pants.”

But his ascent also comes with historical significance; Holt is among only a handful of African Americans to anchor an evening news broadcast. (Max Robinson co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight in the 1970s.) And Holt's promotion comes at a particularly fraught time for race relations in America.

Holt talks to The Hollywood Reporter about his relationship with Williams, how he found out he was getting the job and that he does not need the managing editor title.

Most observers assumed you would be named the permanent anchor of the broadcast. How did you find out? 

It's funny. You assumed it, but I never did. I never let myself go there. I was obliviously not a part of what was happening in terms of management and Brian. I knew I had to take this just as it was given, as a six-month temporary assignment. As we got farther down the line, I knew that it was a possibility. But right until the end, I accepted this as a temporary assignment. And [if] I got the call to go back to my other life, that would have been fine because I have a great job — three jobs. I was told within the last week or so [by NBC News chairman Andrew Lack].

Did you want to also be managing editor?

No, that's not something I ever really dwelled on. The fact of the matter is when you anchor a network broadcast, you're automatically one of the leaders. If I'm uncomfortable with something, I will raise my voice because ultimately I'm the face of the broadcast. But no, that title was never something I really focused on. I am now one of the leaders of this broadcast along with the executive producer and senior producers. I will have a voice. I will have the respect that I'm due under that job title. That's all I could really ask for.

Have you talked to Brian?

I have. I spoke to him the day that the announcement went public. Without being specific because it was a private conversation, I'll just say it was a great conversation for both of us. And I think it's fair to say that we both really wanted to have it because we essentially said the same thing: 'You're my pal, you're my friend and none of this gets between us.' And I think that really captures the essence of the conversation. I'm grateful to Brian for the wonderful things he said about me publicly. He's my friend. And I wish him nothing but the best. I really mean that.

Was that the first time you had talked to him since all of this started in February?

We had done some writing back and forth.

In making the announcement, Lack said that you performed very well under very difficult circumstances. So how difficult was it? 

It was quite difficult. I found out of my fill-in role literally minutes before everybody else found out about it (on February 7). This was the kind of job I had not aspired to in years, since early in my career. It was suddenly a lot of pressure. It's not an easy place to go. What made it easier, is that this is such a successful broadcast and has such a good team. I took my cue from everyone else. I got some great advice along the way, which was you can't just be a caretaker; you've got to act like you own it, at least for this period of time because we have to keep moving forward. And that's what I did. I'm grateful for all the support we had. 

You are among only a very few African Americans to ever anchor one of these broadcasts. How does that make you feel?

I certainly didn't think that door was closed to African Americans. The fact of the matter is there are only three of these jobs and they tend to be held for a very long time. That said, I'm mindful of the significance. Anything we can do that allows people to turn on the TV and see people who might look like themselves is a very positive thing. I've never defined myself professionally by my race but I realize it's significant. A lot of people will take pride in this. If it inspires other young men of color, that's a wonderful thing. And it's a great bonus of this position.

Do you feel that you have an added responsibility to tell the stories of African-Americans, especially right now with so many racially charged news stories unfolding?

I have an added sensitivity. I'm able to go after those stories in a different way. I went down to to North Charleston after Walter Scott was shot. I took three trips down to Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death and was able to work the streets there and talk to people, and ultimately talk to Freddie Gray's family. This is one of the stories of our time. So, do I feel a responsibility? Yes. But I also think that I bring a sensitivity and awareness. And we're going to continue to work these stories. It's a recurring theme in so many stories we cover.

You were on vacation last week when a gunman massacred nine people at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Did you want to come back to cover that story?

I was 4,500 miles away [in Europe], and so I woke up and got to my computer, realized what was happening and the very first thing I did was go on the airline website and see if there was any possible way, and there simply wasn't. If I had found out an hour earlier, it might have been possible. I needed time off, and timing was what it was.  

Observers have pointed out that you have a more self-effacing way of conducting the broadcast than your predecessor. Do you agree and how will you put your stamp on the newscast?

It will continue over time to reflect my personality, my skill set. I struggle with 22 minutes. It's not a lot of time. I want our correspondents to shine through more, I want people to be able to recognize them more for the experts that they have become on the stories they're covering. We're building from a position of strength. It's a solid broadcast. I'm the latest in a line of stewards of that broadcast. And that's what I focus on.

How did you feel when ABC's World News Tonight surpassed Nightly News in the ratings?

Ratings are the only playing field we have. It's a tight race. You want to win everyday. We've won more weeks than we've lost during this period. And I'm looking forward now. A new day starts today.