Lester Holt on Broadcasting in the Age of Coronavirus: "We Do What We Have to Do"

Lester Holt NBC News - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of NBC News

"I have a camera and a setup in my condo if it comes to that," said Holt, who is hosting an NBC News primetime special on the virus Thursday.

NBC News anchor Lester Holt, like anyone who works in television news right now, has a backup plan.

"I have a camera and a setup in my condo if it comes to that," he said. "If I can't work in [30 Rock], I'll be broadcasting from my living room. We do what we have to do."

As the novel coronavirus spreads around the United States, journalists are confronting significant logistical — and medical — challenges in fulfilling their daily mission of telling viewers what's going on.

"We're going to get to a point where everybody is going to have some nexus to this infection," Holt told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. "We also have to be transparent, because we have had to change the way we operate in many ways."

Already, three of Holt's NBC News colleagues — Savannah Guthrie, Craig Melvin and Al Roker — have been forced to broadcast from their homes out of an abundance of caution after a Today show employee tested positive for the virus.

In these trying times, Holt said that journalists must focus on getting answers to the questions that concern viewers. That's what he hopes to do in a primetime special, NBC News Special Report: Coronavirus Pandemic, that he will anchor on Thursday night at 10 p.m. — in collaboration with Facebook. The hourlong show will include analysis from NBC's coronavirus crisis team, including correspondent Dr. John Torres and medical contributor Dr. Joseph Fair.

"We've just got to be about answers," Holt said. "This is journalism: getting the facts that people need and trying to dispel some of the rumors and some of the things that may be misdirecting people. We just want to focus on the facts, focus on the things about coronavirus on how it's transmitted and how we can survive. … As journalists, this is our calling. This is what our jobs are especially at times like this: to help people understate what's happening, why it's happening."

Broadcast news professionals are trained to exclude themselves from the story, but Holt said that's much harder to do when covering this virus, considering how many journalists have been infected.

"Nobody gets a pass on this," Holt said of the virus. "A press card doesn't get you out of this. We don't typically like talking about ourselves, but especially in a situation like this we are no different than anyone else."

Holt said that viewers have recognized the enormity of the story and the massive challenge the country is facing in combatting the spread.

"We don't have to sell this story," he told THR. "This is potentially the story of our lifetimes. We just have to come on in as sober a way as possible and tell people what we know, what we don't know and what we're going to get answered. This is basic journalism. We're in the limelight right now. People are turning to us."