Q&A: Sac State alumnus Lester Holt talks about career, coronavirus pandemic


Photo by Gage Skidmore/CC-BY-SA

Lester Holt, a Sac State alumnus, claps during the 36th annual Cronkite Award Luncheon on November 4, 2019. Holt spoke with The State Hornet about his journalism career and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vince Castellana

Sacramento State alumnus Lester Holt has become one of the most well-known journalists in the country for his work on NBC.

Holt, who grew up in Sacramento and graduated from Cordova High School, went to Sac State in the ‘70s but dropped out before getting his degree. In 2015, Holt received an honorary doctorate from Sac State.

Since joining NBC in 2000, Holt has gone on to host “NBC Nightly News” since June of 2015, “Dateline” since September 2011 and has been a co-anchor for “Weekend Today” for 12 years. Holt also moderated his first presidential debate in 2016.

Holt has won multiple Emmy awards, the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.

The State Hornet spoke with Holt about his career and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Question: When did you decide to become a journalist?

Answer: I knew when I was a young teenager that I wanted to be in broadcasting. I thought I wanted to be a disc jockey, but I knew I would have to maybe read the news as well. So I would say probably around 14 or 15, I knew. I had an older brother who worked in radio for a while and he kind of expected me to get into the business.

Q: Your career has taken you to some of the biggest markets in the world including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. Was there a specific job that you can say that was your “big break” in journalism?

A: Well, I worked in San Francisco for an all-news radio station KCBS radio, which is still there and that really launched me firmly down the path to news. Then I got a break with somebody I worked for, who moved to New York and brought me with him and that was my first television reporting job at WCBS in New York. I’d say it was my biggest break. It was obviously a major market and my experience was limited and I had virtually no experience at television, but they took a chance on me and I knew I would have to somehow rise to the level around me. I had a lot of good people and mentors and people that kind of guided me along the way, but I think that was probably the most important break for me in terms of launching a successful television news career.

Q: Was there a specific person that you looked up to and that you wanted to model yourself after?

A: There was a legendary New York news man named Jerry Nachman who hired me in San Francisco and took me to New York and he was probably one of the most important mentors I had. In terms of people I modeled myself after or looked up to, Bryant Gumbel was kind of an early influence on me and Ed Bradley, who was a late CBS correspondent. There weren’t a lot of African Americans in prominent roles at the networks when I was coming up, so when you would see folks like that it was very inspiring.

Q: Can you explain the pressures of hosting the “NBC Nightly News”?

A: You know, we’ve got a very loyal and good audience every night. It’s a lot of, I don’t want to say pressure, but it’s heady stuff really when you think about it, people put so much trust in our reporting and in our integrity and you don’t want to let folks down. I always try to approach what I do from the position of being an advocate for the viewer. The viewer can’t interview a president of the United States or some of these famous people, but I can and I can do it on their behalf and that is kind of my whole approach. So, I guess it’s a certain amount of pressure, sure. It’s more of a huge responsibility. “NBC Nightly News” has been around for over 75 years now and over that time it’s earned a lot of trust and loyalty. My job is to honor that and make sure that we’re putting out the best possible news broadcast every night.

Q: Could you talk about how your job and more specifically how the field of journalism has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: Well, it’s changed in a lot of ways. It was a technical challenge because we had to quickly move people into their homes with the equipment needed to get on the air and for example I, for the time being, mostly anchor from my home and then we have all the technical ability. Now keep in mind as a global news organization, we’re used to broadcasting from anywhere, any corner of the planet, and sometimes under adverse or inhospitable conditions.

So the big challenge, of course, is we’re limited as to where we can go because of the virus itself. We don’t want to put our people in harm’s way, but at the same time we’ve got to get the interviews and get the facts. So we’re relying on the many social media tools like FaceTime, Zoom and Skype. At the same time we’re not able to work face to face. So many of my colleagues, I haven’t seen them for two months. I mean we’re in contact every day and of course we’re discussing the programs throughout the day on the phone and via computer but we’re a collaborative business and we’re used to working as a team especially on a big story, and so this one has been difficult.

I will point this out, our challenges aren’t much different than what millions of Americans right now face, trying to learn how to effectively do their jobs remotely. So we’re all kind of learning together. I think we all recognize this is the story of our lifetimes. It’s the biggest story any of us covered, a story that virtually touches every point on the planet, which is stunning when you think about it for a moment, and I think this is our calling as journalists.

A story like this people crave and need timely and accurate information. There are a lot of rumors out there and they need someone who will present the facts every night. So we take this as an important responsibility, as a team and as I said we believe that this is our calling.

Holt can be seen on “NBC Nightly News” weeknights at 5:30 p.m. and on “Dateline” every Friday on NBC at 9 p.m.