The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lester Holt’s path from country music DJ to the most powerful perch in news

Lester Holt, a journalist and news anchor for NBC’s “Nightly News” and “Dateline,” at his office. (Celeste Sloman/for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Lester Holt started thinking about crime and punishment in 1995 after serving as a media witness to the execution of George Del Vecchio.

“There was something about that night,” Holt recently recalled, while seated in his fourth-floor office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan. “It was after midnight, and we’re in this cold brick building. There was a curtain. The curtain opened up and the warden was wearing a headset, and then he said,” — Holt tilted his slim 6-foot-2 frame forward and lowered his already low newscaster baritone — “‘Proceed.’”

At the time, Holt was an anchor at the local CBS affiliate in Chicago. “I wanted to stand up and go, ‘Wait a second, we’re going to kill a guy?’ ”

It wasn’t, Holt was quick to point out, that the experience caused him to oppose the death penalty. He had no great sympathy for Del Vecchio, who had killed a boy and raped the boy’s mother. Holt simply wondered, after the curtain opened and the injection was given, whether Del Vecchio’s death made the world any safer.

But that was the mid-1990s, when the 1994 federal crime bill stiffened sentencing requirements and contributed to what is now call mass incarceration. “[Criminal justice] wasn’t a proper thing to talk about,” Holt said. “It was not something that I covered much after that for many years.”

But time has caught up with the issue, and Holt’s question is freshly relevant. It feels like a story he has been waiting all this time to cover.

And, he’s primed to do it from one of the most powerful chairs in the news business as the anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News.” “Now,” Holt said, “it is very popular to talk about these things.”

But he is mostly recognized for his staid and steady demeanor and describes his style as “respectful and respectfully persistent.” He persisted his way into getting President Trump to admit in 2017 that “this Russia thing with Trump” was on his mind when he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey.

His reserve on air can feel like a throwback. While cable news invites anchors to express disapproval and horror at the day’s events or to tear up at all the right moments, the nightly news broadcasts — which draw vastly larger audiences than their cable counterparts — resist that impetus.

Since Holt took the anchor chair, NBC has dropped behind ABC’s “World News Tonight With David Muir” in total viewers, but his show remains the No. 1 program among adults 25-54, the demographic advertisers most care about. Both programs rate above “CBS Evening News,” which recently anointed Norah O’Donnell as its anchor in an effort to boost its third-place ranking.

Despite his position, Holt represents “the anti-diva approach to being the network news anchor,” said Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News. “I’ve seen him in the middle of the night in terrible weather on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, anchoring ‘Nightly News’ without a teleprompter and just notes off an iPad. We’re all in sleeping bags with no facilities, and he’s just completely calm.”

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Holt, who is 60, is the first African American to anchor a broadcast nightly news program without a white counterpart. (Max Robinson was one of three anchors of ABC's "World News Tonight" alongside Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds from 1978 to 1983. CNN's Bernard Shaw anchored the cable network's prime-time news program beginning in 1980.)

He is often described in terms of the racial barrier he broke and admits that he “sometimes bristles at covering every story as the first this or the first that,” because “many of these things are just a matter of now the moment has come. I mean, there was no sign that said: ‘Blacks Need Not Apply for Nightly News,’ but the reality was that there are only three jobs between the three networks, and by all appearances all those people were going to be in those jobs for a very long time.”

But then, Brian Williams, who hosted “Nightly News” until 2015, embellished his own role in covering the news, and Holt — who had been a weekend anchor for NBC News — was suddenly in the chair.

Holt’s versatility says something about how he managed to get here.

He initially wanted to be a disc jockey, and his first paying broadcast job was as an overnight weekend DJ at a country western radio station in Sacramento, with the call letters KRAK. “K-R-A-K,” Holt helpfully spelled out. “Imagine that name in 2019.”

He transitioned to a full-time job as a news reporter. They gave him a Jeep Cherokee with the KRAK logo emblazoned on it and outfitted the interior with radio scanners so he could chase fire and police calls. In that job, Holt discovered his love of the news.

Eventually, he was hired by Johnathan Rodgers as an anchor at WBBM, the CBS-owned TV station in Chicago. Both men had grown up as military brats, and Rodgers, who is black, said that when he met Holt, he immediately wanted to hire him because he thought, “Oh this guy is just like me!”

Richard Prince, who is a veteran journalist and writes a column about diversity in the news media, said Holt was hired in Chicago amid a boycott of the local station led by Jesse Jackson, who argued that they did not have enough African Americans on air.

“So [Holt] has a history of being intertwined with the race issue, but when he got the job he tried to shy away from that,” Prince said.

Holt spent 14 years in Chicago but was eventually faced with relatively low ratings and a possible demotion. Instead of staying, he hunted for a new job and in 2000 found one at MSNBC in New York.

His career setback in Chicago shook his confidence and made him work even harder. At MSNBC he reported from the anchor chair for such long stretches that colleagues gave him the nickname “Iron Pants.” The next five years provided him ample opportunity to be noticed. First came the Florida recount, then 9/11, then the invasion of Afghanistan, then the invasion of Iraq. He started appearing on “Weekend Today” and eventually moved to the broadcast division of NBC News.

Lately Holt, who was a registered Republican until 2016 and is now an independent, has been shaping his program to include more explicit discussions of race.

Last fall, Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the weekday network evening newscasts at the three networks, penned a report focused on Holt’s nascent coverage of racially significant topics.

In it, Tyndall wrote that after several years of projecting “a persona that was uninflected by racial insights,” Holt had aired segments on his own discovery — at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Museum) — that one of his ancestors had probably been lynched. Another segment focused on redlining in Kansas City.

While Holt acknowledges that he is making the broadcast his own, he appears loath to embrace labels.

“There has been no sense of, ‘I’m a black anchor and therefore we’re going to do black stories,’ ” he said. Race and criminal justice are “the issues of our time right now.” These are issues “we’re all reporting on.”

“I’ve never come with an agenda. I was one of those that always said, ‘I’m an anchor who is black, but I don’t come here as a black anchor, and there’s a difference. . . . I can’t escape the fact that I’m here as a result of people who’ve demanded rights and tried to awaken this country. So I have a certain sensitivity and a certain access to cover certain stories, and that’s what we ask of anyone here.”

Rodgers noted that Holt has always wanted to be assessed first for his work and perceived as “an anchor who happens to be black by the audience and management.” But however Holt wanted to be seen, a third of the audience in Chicago was African American, Rodgers said. “They perceived him as a black anchor, and that was beneficial to us.”

Errin Whack, who covers racial issues for the Associated Press, said Holt’s reserved demeanor has helped gain the trust of millions of Americans. Now, “he has the power with his perch in the ‘Nightly News’ kingdom to say that criminal justice is a priority.”

“There are not many people who are black who have had the trust of as many white Americans as this man has,” added Whack, who is black.

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The incarcerated population in the United States makes up 20 percent of the total number of people in prison globally. But the country represents only 5 percent of the global population. That statistic was among the many that Holt and "Dateline" producer Dan Slepian presented to NBC News top brass to persuade them to devote a week of programming to the criminal justice system with Holt acting as something of the master of ceremonies. The focus is in part because of Holt's own championing of the issue internally.

Once NBC was on board, the question was how to make a compelling show about prison reform. “I guess there were conversations, ‘What if we lock up Lester?’ ” Holt recalled. “I laughed and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”

His first concern was that it would feel like a gimmick. But he was eventually convinced that he could embed in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the country’s largest maximum-security prison, in the same way a reporter embeds with troops at war.

His stay there formed the basis of a “Dateline” special that aired last week. Holt also hosted an MSNBC town hall, featuring musician John Legend and former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch, at Sing Sing prison, that ended up drawing Trump’s ire.

“Guys like boring musician @johnlegend, and his filthy mouthed wife, are talking now about how great it is,” the president tweeted, referring to criminal justice reform, “but I didn’t see them around when we needed help getting it passed. ‘Anchor’ @LesterHoltNBC doesn’t even bring up the subject of President Trump or the Republicans when talking about the importance or passage of Criminal Justice Reform. They only talk about the minor players, or people that had nothing to do with it.”

In fact, Holt had given Trump credit during the “Dateline” special, and showed him signing the First Step Act, a criminal justice measure championed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The land on which Angola sits was formerly three separate slave plantations, one of them named after the home country of the slaves held there.

The significance of embedding a black man in a prison filled mostly with other black men was not lost on Holt.

Angola still operates a farm, where prisoners grow everything from tobacco to carrots. The inmates are paid pennies a day for their work. One afternoon, Holt was out in the fields with them, and one said: “It’s like slavery out here.” Holt replied, “Everyone here looks like us.”

“It’s obviously not slavery, but you know, I couldn’t help but be struck by here we are a bunch of black guys picking produce,” he said.

This story has been updated to correct the date of Holt’s party affiliation change and the classification of Angola.