Door of op­por­tu­nity at ‘ Nightly News’

New an­chor Lester Holt is pre­pared for what­ever may come


NEW YORK — Lester Holt dropped out of Sacra­mento State Univer­sity to take his f irst job in jour­nal­ism at an all- news ra­dio sta­tion in San Fran­cisco. He roamed the city in a blue Ford Granada equipped with po­lice and f ire scan­ners and a two- way ra­dio.

“They used to run a promo that said, ‘ Break­ing news with Lester Holt, the fastest mike in the West,’ ” re­called the new an­chor of the “NBC Nightly News.”

Holt’s NBC News off ice over­look­ing Rock­e­feller Plaza is a long way from his days as a siren- chas­ing street re­porter. But even dur­ing the four months he was asked to step in as an­chor while Brian Wil­liams was sus­pended, Holt was the f irst out the door when ma­jor sto­ries broke, cov­er­ing the street protests in Bal­ti­more, wad­ing through f loods in Wim­berly, Texas, and hov­er­ing above the wreck­age of an Am­trak train in Philadelphia.

“He’s al­ways been like that,” said “Date­line NBC” cor­re­spon­dent Josh Mankiewicz, who f irst worked with Holt at WCBS- TV in New York. “He has al­ways been a great citi- zen of the news­room.”

Holt de­scribes him­self as a guy who “tends to not say no.” That may ex­plain how he ended up with three high­pro­file roles at NBC News — serv­ing as an­chor of the week­end edi­tion of “To­day,” and the Satur­day and Sun­day edi­tions of “NBC Nightly News” and “Date­line NBC.”

The good will he en­gen­dered among col­leagues and ex­ec­u­tives over the years made it an easy choice to put Holt in the weekday “Nightly News” job per­ma­nently once net­work ex­ec­u­tives de­ter­mined that Wil­liams was out for good ( he’s been re­as­signed to han­dle break­ing news at ca­ble net­work MSNBC).

That feel­ing was ev­i­dent when Holt walked into his f irst staff meet­ing Mon­day morn­ing as per­ma­nent an­chor. He was greeted with a stand­ing ova­tion.

There is also a sense of re­lief at NBC News that the con­tro­versy over Wil­liams’ false state­ments about his cov­er­age of the 2003 U. S. in­va­sion of Iraq is f in­ally over. “Peo­ple feel like they have had a long, warm, sudsy shower,” is how one for­mer NBC News ex­ec­u­tive de­scribed

it. “It’s all down the drain.”

Even Wil­liams ac­knowl­edged that “Nightly News” was in good hands when he gave an in­ter­view to “To­day” co- host Matt Lauer last week.

“Brian and I are good,” Holt said. “We’re very good.” At the end of his broad­cast Mon­day, Holt thanked Wil­liams for his sup­port.

Iron­i­cally, a few months be­fore Wil­liams got into trou­ble, Holt had talked with man­age­ment about pulling back from his in­tense sched­ule. “I said, ‘ Maybe it’s time to start tap­ping the brakes,’ ” he said. “My fam­ily had put up with an aw­ful lot.”

Those plans have been de­ferred as Holt lives by the words a men­tor once said to him early in his ca­reer: Pre­pare your­self to walk through doors of op­por­tu­nity that will swing open when you least ex­pect them to.

It f irst hap­pened to Holt in 1986, when he landed a ma­jor lo­cal TV an­chor job. He got the gig af­ter CBS’ Chicago sta­tion WBBM de­moted long­time an­chor Harry Porter­field, re­mov­ing an African Amer­i­can from the lineup of a sta­tion that had lit­tle di­ver­sity on its weekday news­casts.

The Rev. Jesse Jack­son and Op­er­a­tion PUSH led a 10- month boy­cott against WBBM, and Holt was moved from WCBS in New York to take over one of the nightly news­casts in Chicago.

“I got that call and I was 27 years old,” Holt said. “There was a tremen­dous amount of pres­sure. I didn’t re­al­ize how much pres­sure it was go­ing to be.”

Holt, now 56, is be­ing called in to smooth over a cri­sis again, be­cause no one at NBC imag­ined Wil­liams’ ca­reer at the net­work would im­mo­late the way it did.

“Ev­ery­body ac­cepts that it’s not the cir­cum­stances that I would have liked to have got­ten a role like this,” he said.

“But it is what it is. I’ve worn a lot of hats at NBC. I’ve done a lot of things. Ev­ery­thing has pre­pared me for what­ever may come. This door of op­por­tu­nity has swung open in a place I didn’t see com­ing. But I got the call to walk through. I’m con­fi­dent. All my life ex­pe­ri­ence has pre­pared me for some­thing like this.”

Holt left Chicago to join MSNBC in 2000 dur­ing what now looks like a golden age of 24- hour- ca­ble news. Many con­tin­u­ous hours in the an­chor chair and out in the f ield cov­er­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion vote re­count in Florida, the 9/ 11 at­tacks, the U. S. in­va­sions of Afghanistan and Iraq made Holt a known quan­tity na­tion­ally and earned him the in­ter­nal nick­name of “Iron Pants.” His ap­proach to break­ing news, he said, was “I don’t want to get up and not f ind out how this ends.”

Holt, who was born on an Air Force base in Marin County and grew up mostly in Sacra­mento, keeps an apart­ment on the West­side of Los An­ge­les.

He’s not plan­ning big changes to “NBC Nightly News,” but he does hope to make news­casts fresher for West Coast view­ers and work out of NBC’s Los An­ge­les stu­dios more fre­quently.

Although not known for be­ing the kind of talk show racon­teur that Wil­liams had been, Holt re­vealed a play­ful side as co- an­chor of week­end “To­day.”

He keeps a bass guitar and a small am­pli­fier in his of­fice, hav­ing played since he picked up the in­stru­ment in ju­nior high school.

He’s good enough to sit in with artists booked to the “To­day” show crowds in Rock­e­feller Plaza, in­clud­ing the Steve Miller Band, Earth Wind & Fire and coun­try star Luke Bryan ( as a teenager, Holt worked as a disc jockey at a Sacra­mento coun­try mu­sic sta­tion, tak­ing re­quests from truck­ers who called in).

A fan of the big band sounds of Count Basie and May­nard Fer­gu­son, Holt has even plucked a stand- up bass with jazz com­bos at clubs in Man­hat­tan, where he lives with his wife, Carol.

Holt has not dwelled much on the history he is mak­ing with his latest tran­si­tion.

Only one other African Amer­i­can has served as an an­chor on a broad­cast net­work’s f lag­ship evening news­cast, ABC’s Max Robin­son, and he had to share the role with Peter Jen­nings and Frank Reynolds. Yet Holt rec­og­nizes its sig­nif­i­cance.

“To the ex­tent that it fills peo­ple with pride, I take pride in that,” he said. “It’s not a small mat­ter. I’m mind­ful — these are big jobs. There are only three of them. I take a lot of pride in it mainly be­cause some kid will turn on the TV and say, ‘ I can do that.’ ”

One of those kids is Holt’s old­est son, Ste­fan, the morn­ing news an­chor at NBC’s WMAQ in Chicago — just a few blocks from the lo­ca­tion of the now de­mol­ished stu­dio where his fa­ther once toiled.

‘ To the ex­tent that it fills peo­ple with pride, I take pride in that’ — LESTER HOLT,

ABOVE, I N 1981, On mak­ing history as be­ing one of only two African Amer­i­can anchors of a broad­cast net­work’s f lag­ship evening news­cast

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

LESTER HOLT “has al­ways been a great citizen of the news­room,” a col­league says of the new an­chor of the “NBC Nightly News.”

CBS vi a Getty I mages

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