From his words to his music, Lester Holt’s visit to Florida this weekend brought down the house.
On Saturday, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor was honored with the Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement at the organization’s annual Bowtie Ball.
Holt was interviewed onstage in a Q&A with Poynter vice president Kelly McBride. He opened by thanking Poynter and congratulating the evening’s other honoree, Poynter’s Distinguished Service to Journalism Award recipient Arthur Sulzberger, the former publisher and current chairman of the New York Times publishing company.
“I root for the New York Times, I root for the Washington Post, I root for good journalism every day, and you guys are making us all proud,” Holt said.
McBride started by congratulating Holt not just on his honor from Poynter, but for recently being named America’s most trusted TV news source in a survey by Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult. She asked if the honor changed his approach to his work. He said no.
“What we do is all about trust,” Holt said. “We’re trusting that 8 million people will sit down in front of the television and believe what we are saying and believe we’ve done the best we can to get it right every day.”
He said that he advises young people he works with, “We have to do this every day. There’s no falling down on the job. We’ve got to be better tomorrow than we were today.”
McBride took Holt and the guests back in time to Rancho Cordova High School in California, where Holt caught the journalism bug via the morning announcements.
“I was a nerd who really wanted to be a disc jockey; I wanted to be in radio,” he said. “So when other kids were out playing, I was sitting in my bedroom with a record player, a newspaper and a tape recorder practicing my announcing skills.”
When he got the morning announcement gig, he fashioned them after radio broadcasts.
“So I would come on and say, ‘Good morning, it’s 8:30, I’m Lester Holt, here’s what’s happening,” he said in his best broadcast voice to a round of laughter. “And then at the end, I’d go, ‘And that’s what’s happening, at 8:38, YOU’RE up to date.’
“I’ve been using the same trick since then.”
As a teenager, Holt taped Nixon’s resignation broadcast, which McBride called a storyteller’s urge.
“That was where my head was at — I was already in that news mode,” he said.
He was also an overnight DJ at a country music station in high school, working midnight to 6 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The radio station offered him a full-time job as a news reporter when he was in college in Sacramento, and gave him a Jeep Cherokee outfitted with police radios.
“I would chase fire trucks and police cars, I’d go to city council meetings. I was the man on the spot,” he said. He applied and got a job at an all-news radio station in San Francisco, with a plan to transfer colleges.
“But once I got to San Francisco … I knew at that point that journalism was my life, and ‘I’ll enroll next semester,’ and ‘I’ll enroll the semester after that’ …” he said to laughs.
A year and a half later, he was a 22-year-old reporter in New York City.
“It simply got deferred,” he said. “I’ve talked about maybe earning a degree along the way, but I’m doing OK.”
McBride explained that Holt transitioned from radio to TV, and went from New York to Los Angeles to Chicago, reporting from conflict zones all over the world. She asked about particular stories, and what he learned about the role of journalism at that point in his career.
He said the assignment that stood out the most to him was covering the famine and civil war in Somalia.
“We go to far-flung corners of the world and sometimes places in our own cities, and we shine that light, and we have the power to make people care and the power to make people act,” he said.
Holt then went to MSNBC. McBride told the crowd his nickname was Ironpants, for his ability to sit in one place and deliver news for hours at a time.
“I have learned that if you can do cable news, you can do anything,” Holt said, “because there are hours you are just sitting there with no scripts and you’re ad-libbing and you’re describing video that’s coming in and you’re reacting very quickly.”
After his years at MSNBC, he hopped to “the network,” NBC.
McBride spoke of the power of Holt’s 9-11 coverage.
“I went back and watched the tapes of you on Sept. 11 and it’s really powerful. You are using the skills of a journalist to accurately describe what’s happening without overstating it and that’s really hard to do,” McBride said. She said particularly moving was the live shot during the second plane’s impact. “It was this defining, momentous day, and in that moment, you were the quintessential anchor… you were describing what’s happening, and you were the one who said, ‘This is a commercial airliner. This has been deliberately piloted. It was impossible that this was an accident.’ You were the first person to say that on air. Do you remember that moment and how you came to that?”
Holt said he remembered. He was on a shuttle bus on the way to work, and noticed smoke coming from one of the towers.
“I remember I ran into the studio, and I just shouted, ‘Give me a mic, get me a mic!’” he said. He said his background in aviation reporting and his family’s military history allowed him to quickly make those identifications. One challenge was being a husband and father to two sons that day, keeping his family calm and trying to do his job.
“One thing to understand about journalists, when those kinds of stories are happening, we are missing out on a shared American experience, which is sitting there as a family, with friends, watching this thing play out, reacting to it, hugging each other,” he said. “We’re covering the story. And so there wasn’t the kind of emotion you might think about. For me, it was the one-year anniversary, at Ground Zero, talking to survivors; that’s when my 9-11 happened in terms of the emotional impact on me.
“I’ve seen this on other big stories. We’re there doing it, and we miss that moment when the country kind of stops and reflects together.”
McBride asked him about his role a moderator in one of the 2016 presidential debate, which he “caught flack” by honing in on Hillary Clinton’s emails while ignoring some Trump controversy.
“It was a big undertaking. It was the scariest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Holt said. He said both sides played him in the weeks leading up to the debate, and seeing himself as a topic for news discussions was surreal.
“That’s playing the background,” he said, and while he wanted to show bravado, “It gets to you. You’re a human being.”
He said the debate commission’s format felt awkward to him, but he had a game plan that included giving the candidates a “chance to mix it up.”
“At the start I tried to give them a little space and it kind of got out of hand,” he said. “So now I’m trying to bring them back and still follow this format, and at one point there was a magical moment where inside I just said, ‘You know what? The hell with it.’”
He said it was fascinating to read his emails after the debate.
“I sat there and flipped through it on my phone: ‘Brilliant job!’ ‘Awesome job!’ ‘Loser!’ You know? ‘Bottomfeeder!’ And I saved every one of them.”
He said he’s interviewed five presidents, and McBride noted that he’d won an Emmy for his interview with President Barack Obama on his way out of office. She asked if he had to prepare differently for a well-known exclusive interview with President Donald Trump.
“In this case, I really wanted to keep him on point,” he said. “I did interrupt him a few times, and hopefully not in a rude way, because I believe you bring respect to every person you talk to.”
Following his award, Holt stood in with the event’s band, Orquesta Infinidad. An avid musician, he played stand-up bass for covers of “Oye Como Va” and “Jingle Bells.”
You can see his performance here.