Lester Holt Talks Election, Public Trust During L.A. Press Freedom Week

Lester Holt panel - Publicity - H 2019

"I think one of the challenges we're facing right now is to what extent we defend ourselves as journalists, because it's not in our nature," Holt questioned during the panel. "At what point do you say, 'No, that's not the case' and take off the gloves?"

As part of L.A. Press Freedom Week, put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and L.A. Times, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt sat down with a panel of journalists to talk politics, diversity, Twitter and public trust on Wednesday night. 

Held at L.A. Central Library, the "Press Freedom and Diversity: Whose Voice Gets Included?" panel included L.A. Times deputy managing editor Sewell Chan, ICIJ reporter Marina Walker, Univision reporter Leon Krauze and AP writer Errin Haines. Though Holt largely served as moderator and stayed out of conversations, he did take part in discussions about threats to freedom of the press and audiences' wavering trust. 

"I remind people that television news or news in general isn't supposed to make you happy all the time — sometimes it's going to make you mad because we're going to report something that is going to change your worldview or challenge your worldview or suggest that maybe things aren't quite as you thought they were," Holt said on the panel. "That's the reality, and I think it's important to remind ourselves because we are in businesses that depend on viewership or readership and different metrics. But at the same time, we've got to be true to our mission and that's to report the truth and try to put things in perspective every day."

He added that in light of the press coming under attack, "I think one of the challenges we're facing right now is to what extent we defend ourselves as journalists, because it's not in our nature — we want our work to speak for who we are and what we do —and I think that's something that we all wrestle with. At what point do you say, 'No, that's not the case' and take off the gloves?"

The five journalists spent much of the conversation focusing on politics, with Haines noting how many newsrooms have brought in more people of color since the 2016 election, realizing "we certainly aren't living in a postracial environment, so that means to cover politics in America in this moment is to be fluent in issues of race." Haines, who specializes in the intersection between race and politics, also declared that 2020 would serve as a defining moment for the country, to find out who the voters are as citizens, neighbors and friends, with race being a key component. 

Holt also brought up accusations that the press didn't listen to or understand the people ahead of Trump's election, with Chan saying that the press needed to plead guilty to some of those claims after living in a bubble. 

"It's very dangerous if reporting gets defined as something that gets done on the coasts, something that gets done in big cities by people who went to good schools," he said. "Those people may be looking more diverse, but if we all went to the same schools and have the same social circles and the same cosmopolitan sensibilities, we're going to be missing out on a lot of what is the richness and complexity of America." 

As international reporters, Walker and Krauze spoke to the impact of Trump's war on the press on the rest of the world. While Krauze commended papers like the The New York Times and The Washington Post for the way they've responded to the president's attacks, Walker spoke of a global impact in places like her home country of Argentina. 

"What worries me now is the kind of signal that leadership in this country is giving to countries like mine — polarized societies that used to look up to the U.S. in terms of independence and the strength of institutions and the defense of freedom of the press," she said. "Right now, it's kind of like the opposite; it's like the U.S. at the very top is signaling to populists and dictators that it's OK to go after journalists, and they are the enemy of the people, and they are despicable. Those words matter in countries around the world." 

LA Press Freedom Week is a weeklong series of talks around the city focused on freedom of the press and measures needed to defend it.