An interview with NBC’s Lester Holt about press freedoms

May 2, 2019

Journalism is under attack. “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt takes it further. “The truth is under threat,” he said.

That’s why Friday’s World Press Freedom Day means something to Holt. But it’s not something he observes once a year. He serves on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Next week, he will emcee a dinner for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. And on Friday’s “NBC Nightly News,” Holt will feature the parents of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who was kidnapped while reporting in Syria in 2012.

Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones spoke to Holt by phone from his office in New York City on Thursday about what press freedom means to him, the threat against the media here in the United States and why he is more determined than ever to be a journalist.

Friday is World Press Freedom Day. What does this day mean to you?

It’s a recognition, I think, that what we do is important as journalists. What we do requires a lot of risks. Some of those risks we accept — the danger of going in the field and going to unsettled situations. But increasingly, as we’ve all noted, around the world there is a danger of a crackdown. There are efforts to silence journalists in ways physical and sometimes more subtle ways.

Speaking of those subtle ways, let me ask you about that. We know how dangerous it is to be a reporter in other parts of globe, where journalists are often killed and imprisoned for their work. But what about here in the United States? Are press freedoms under threat at the moment?

I think there’s a threat to the truth right now. I think it’s truth that is under threat. Now, by extension, we’ve become the symbol of that truth. And those who are enemies of an informed public, those who are enemies of the truth look at us as enemies. Certainly there are very subtle jabs at what we do. We’re all watching them. They say words matter. Well, not only the words, but spoken over and over and over again, they begin to have perhaps a lingering, lasting effect and I think that’s the danger we have right now.

That constant attack of “fake news” and “evil media” rhetoric?

I think most people know that we start out our day, as we do every day, with the single-minded issue of telling the truth. Reporting the news and providing some perspective with it. But, at the same time, when you have people in high places who are talking us down, it potentially has an effect.

So what can we do, as media, to combat that?

It’s about transparency. I do think it’s healthy that people become critical thinkers and question some of what they read and some of what they see. But from our perspective, we combat that by being more transparent, talking more about how we source our stories, that we don’t rely, generally, on a single source. Telling people as much as we can about the process of where this information comes from — I think that is something we do on a normal basis, but in this time of heightened skepticism, we can’t do it enough.

Many polls show that Americans trust their local news, but not necessarily the national news, particularly when it comes to politics. As someone who works on a national level, is that frustrating?

It’s frustrating because I think we tend to lump this term “media” and it’s kind of a one-size-fits-all term — that anyone who has a camera or a computer is media right now and that’s not necessarily the case. There are a lot of what I call boutique offerings out there of information. A lot of it is opinion-oriented. It’s provocative. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Some of it is really, really good work. But it’s different than what broadcasts like mine do. Mine is a straight-forward, hard newscast. While we provide analysis, we don’t provide opinion. And I think sometimes it gets all lumped in together. Once again, I understand it. There are a lot of voices out there competing for people’s attention right now, so it can be confusing. …We have to become critical thinkers and understand the differences between different media platforms, what their intent is. Many of these programs that do provocative, opinionated programming — they certainly aren’t hiding it. They’re very upfront about it. But we need to understand the differences.

You’re doing a “Nightly News” piece for World Press Freedom Day on Austin Tice, the journalist who was kidnapped while reporting from Syria in 2012. NBC News talks to Austin’s parents. What can you tell me about that?

They’re very encouraged because the administration back in November was very public in saying they thought that Austin is alive. His parents are these wonderful people who firmly believe their son is coming home. They were very strengthened by the administration’s public stance that they believe Austin is alive. … The FBI put out a million dollar reward about a year or so ago and, according to the family, they’ve had some useful information from that. So they are very encouraged on a lot of levels.

Finally, are you optimistic about the future of journalism?

I am. People often ask me, “Oh, how do you guys do it?” And I always respond to them, “What do you mean, how do we do it?” This is an amazing time to be a journalist right now. There are so many moving parts. There are so many norms that are being challenged, not only on the political level, but other areas of life. Everything is coming at us at 90 miles per hour. And people really want a port in the storm every night and we try to provide that with “Nightly News.” It’s a place you can come in, get out from the waves and really understand what happened today and how it fits into the bigger picture. I’m having a ball. I think my colleagues are, too. We’re energized. Those voices that try and talk us down only make us more determined to carry out our mission as journalists. We firmly believe that what we do is an important pillar of a healthy functioning democracy and we will always stand for it.