Lester Holt On Covering A Year Of The Covid-19 Crisis: “It’s Hard To Imagine Anything Bigger, But I Say That Very Quietly”

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Lester on set

Lester Holt, along with Savannah Guthrie, will anchor an NBC News special on Thursday, Covid One Year Later: Life After Lockdown, marking the one-year anniversary of the start of the Covid-19 lockdowns and a full crisis that has touched all parts of society.

Around this time last March, Holt told Deadline that the coronavirus crisis was “potentially the biggest story I’ll ever cover.” What no one knew then was all the other tumult that the next year would bring, including the protests and racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd and the post-election turbulence following the presidential election that led to a siege on the U.S. Capitol.

Deadline spoke to Holt about the past year, how stories were covered amid a pandemic and what changes might be permanent in the media landscape. Later this month, Holt will receive the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award from Washington State University.

“Covering the coronavirus is a story like none other, and I think it will be the story of a lifetime — to not only have lived through it but to cover it,” Holt said. “It’s hard to imagine anything bigger, but I say that very quietly.”

DEADLINE: How different is it now for you versus when the lockdown first started?

LESTER HOLT: Basically I’m anchoring at 30 Rock and our main studio generally three days a week and then two from my home studio. Once my turn comes up for the shot and I am fully vaccinated, it is my intent to come full time into the studio. But the way it works now is I can go there. I have very limited interaction with folks, other than shouting through the doorway of my office. And when I’m in the studio, it’s just me and one camera operator who is a good 12 to 15 feet away. We’re taking all the usual precautions with masks when I’m not on camera. I feel very comfortable with it, but I gotta tell you, I’m anxious to not only spend more time in the office but anxious for the day when we can bring more of our colleagues back into the office, and then it’ll be like the old days.

DEADLINE: Do you think that some of the changes that we’ve seen, whether they be safety precaution precautions or Zoom interviews, will become, in a sense, permanent?

HOLT: I think it is going to change our news gathering. I certainly miss getting on a plane or getting in a car and going to the story and talking to someone face to face, but we don’t have that luxury right now. And so Zoom has really been a godsend for what we do. The fact that we can talk to people on the fly, I think, is something that we will probably make a permanent part of our coverage. There will be the circumstances where you really want to interview someone, but physically you can’t get a flight or the timing doesn’t work out, but they’re important to the story. I think we’ll be more comfortable with the idea of putting them in front of a computer and doing a Zoom interview.

DEADLINE: How have you been touched personally by the pandemic? I mean, people you know have become seriously ill.

HOLT: I know a lot of people who’ve been infected with it. I have known a few who died from it. Personally, I guess like everyone, [there] has been this sense of dread for the last year. We see these numbers steadily climbing up, and who among us hasn’t wondered, “Am I going to be next?” So on that level, and then certainly the family level, I haven’t seen my parents in over a year. My mother is 90. My father is 89. I don’t get to see my grandkids much. But those are those are things that are not unique to Lester Holt. We are all going through it. Hopefully now, we are a lot closer to the end of this thing than we are to the beginning. That’s kind of where I find my hope.

DEADLINE: Is there any story that you’ve had on Nightly News that has touched you the most about the pandemic?

HOLT: I think every time I hear medical staff describe what it is like in these ICUs and hear and see their pain. And then I hear people who are discounting the virus. It’s upsetting, because so many people are suffering through it. I found one of the interesting things that we’re going through is, we see these numbers [of death] over a half-million, but we look outside and things look kind of normal. I can look at my window right here in New York City, and people are going about their day. Construction workers are doing what they do when the stores are open, and you look at those numbers and you think, “Wow, is it two different planets we’re living on?” It’s not like a kind of catastrophe we’re used to, where there’s triage teams and Red Cross tents and the things that we’ve come to associate with calamity. We don’t see that, and I think it’s been hard for us to kind of process all this as a result.

DEADLINE: Is that a concern, that the tragedy is so great that people become numb to it?

HOLT: I think it is really important. I tried many a night to kind of put things in perspective. Last night, for example, I think I’ve led the newscast off by saying, “No one has declared the pandemic over.” And yet as we approach this one-year anniversary, more and more states are using it as a jumping off point, eliminating restrictions and allowing gatherings and that sort of thing. So there is a way of kind of putting things in perspective, because if the headline is, “Hey, everything’s opening up again,” you’re only telling part of the story. You have to tell that story and make sure that people understand that this isn’t over.

DEADLINE: What made you start the occasional commentaries on Nightly News?

HOLT: So much was being thrown at us and we’re trying to process so much, and I recognize that a program like ours is appointment viewing to a lot of people. We all know that news audiences have increased during this period. And this is one story that we can’t stand aside as this neutral, dispassionate observer. “We’re all in this together” has kind of become a cliché, but it’s really true. And I realized I had to have some way to communicate to the viewer that yes, I’m a human being too, and yes we are all going through this, and I’m doing my darnedest to get you the information, the most accurate complete information, but I don’t for a minute want you think that I’m a dispassionate observer here. I’m hoping that it’s been helpful for people to at these moments in which I can kind of ground us and say, “This is where we’re at. This is what it means. This is how it’s affecting all of us.” I guess it is commentary. I’m always fearful of the word “commentary” because sometimes it implies editorial, and I don’t really want it to be that way.

DEADLINE: Is there a concern of yours of how far do you go before people say you have your own partisan viewpoint?

HOLT: Sometimes you can’t ignore things, and you can’t ignore the fact that mask wearing has become a symbol of the culture wars. Sometimes we mention things like that. It is not an editorial because this is what’s happening. These are different lenses that people are looking at this through. But yeah, I gut-check on this all the time, and I’ll send it to producers to take a look at it, to make sure I’m not too far over my skis. And I recognize, especially leading up to November, that almost everything was a political third rail, and that’s not the road I was trying to go down. I think it is a little easier now. But I pick my moments, and that’s what I tell producers.

DEADLINE: You talked about the pandemic being the story of a lifetime. But that was before quite a lot else happened — the racial justice protests, the Capitol siege. In some way, do you think they’re all connected?

HOLT: I think they all contributed to this collective sense of anxiety, this collective sense of the wheels are just falling off the bus, that we were kind of just falling into this black hole and trying to find the bottom. I think we’ll look at it — not just as the time of Covid — I think, especially 2020, we’ll probably look at it much of the way we look at 1968. 1968 was a series of events that that made it so memorable, and I think 2020 will be that as well. But clearly, Covid has defined this period. The other issues, the divisiveness of our time. The attack on the Capitol. Black Lives Matter. George Floyd. All those things, I think, collectively wear on us. And as I said, they provide this sense of just dread, that things aren’t OK, and this sense of, “We don’t know how we get better.” That’s how I kind of see it. 2020 will always be the notorious year, but 2021 will probably have its share of heartache as well as find our way out of this thing.

DEADLINE: George Floyd — what went through your mind when you first saw that video?

HOLT: I think everybody saw it. I looked at through the lens of history, as an African American, as kind of a painful legacy. And I looked at it as, I think with all Americans, just a sense of disappointment, the idea of anyone dying under the knee of a sworn police officer just makes you shudder. Very often we don’t want to show graphic images too much, but I think that was important that everyone was witness to it. Now of course we’re looking at the trial, but I think a lot of Americans look at that and [think], “Yep, see? This is what we have been living and experiencing.” I think other Americans, maybe [their] eyes were open in a different way — not that people are ignorant to police brutality and racism, but what appeared to be the blatant nature of that, no one could look away and think that this wasn’t something horrible.

DEADLINE: What about “cancel culture.” Is this a backlash to the racial reckoning that we’re going through?

HOLT: I don’t really have a thought or opinion on that. We’re a culture that evolves. A lot of things that may have been acceptable 50 years ago simply aren’t today. Our morals, our values — these are all things that change over time. And I just look at this as another part of the American journey of how we perceive things and how our sense of appropriateness changes over time. And how we see things. Some things may have been inappropriate all along, but it took us a while to evolve to the point where we could call it for what it was.

DEADLINE: Going back to George Floyd. Was that personal to you? Did you look at that video and say, “I haven’t had the same experience, obviously, but certainly I have had that experience that whites just don’t see”?

HOLT: I certainly have had no experience that that could come close to that sort of thing. Anything that might have even come close was easily diffused. So thankfully, in my life, I haven’t had anything worth mentioning. But I recognize that, you know, this is something that happens to a lot of people of color — maybe not a knee on the neck, but I think it was more from a historical perspective. I mean, knowing the history of African Americans, the treatment of African Americans in this country, and to see that in the year 2020, it was horrifying. It was unsettling. And yet there was a part of me that wanted people to watch and to see it and to maybe have a greater understanding of just the sadness and grief and how it impacts communities of color.

DEADLINE: We also talked a year ago about misinformation, how important it was to separate rumor from fact. Does it surprise you that we’re still kind of grappling with this? You mentioned masks, but the latest seems to be this mistrust of vaccinations.

HOLT: All we can do is try and present facts. We all know that truth has been taking on the chin of late. Our organization, and Nightly News, we’ve got an over-75-year tradition of integrity and excellence, and we know that you know our audience trusts us and knows that our only bias is really towards the truth or getting the answers. It’s disappointing as a journalist when facts are ignored or discounted, and it makes our job that much tougher, but we have to call things as they are, and if they are lies, we have to call them out as lies. That has been very hard over the last several years. It’s not a word that comes easily to journalists. But we’ve got to deal with these things and do the best we can, but at the end of the day, we can’t necessarily change all minds.

DEADLINE: The night before the election you said this campaign has often felt like a powder keg. That was kind of prescient given what happened afterward.

HOLT: Watching what happened in January 6, I happened to watch it from my home studio here as it unfolded. And I think like a lot of people I looked at that, and while it was shocking, there’s a part of you has to go. “Yeah, I can kind of see how this happened.” We’ve certainly seen all the ingredients stacked up for some time that could have led to all this. So did I expect it? No. Was I shocked by it? Yes. Was I surprised by it? Only mildly. Again, because I think we saw all these pieces coming together one by one, certainly since the election.

DEADLINE: Do you think that there’s a danger and people forgetting what happened?

HOLT: I think there is a danger in people forgetting a lot of things. One of the things I have noted as a journalist is things happen very, very quickly, and we move on very. very quickly. Stories that used to dominate maybe five, six or seven days or more now go by in a couple of days. One of the ones that stands out for me was the Las Vegas shooting [in 2017]. The death toll was unimaginable. People mowed down watching a concert, and then I traveled there and covered that story. That’s a story that 20 years ago would have been the lead story for a couple of weeks every night. And this is no slam against my broadcast or any other newscast, but that story was overtaken much more quickly than we might have seen 20 years ago. Again, that is not a slam against anyone, but it is just a reflection of how quickly we move right now and the news cycle moves. I think part of that is we just have more access to information. The information comes more quickly. There are more of us out there covering these things. Stories that would have been Day 2 or Day 3, what we call bounce stories, are now that day. Cable news is obviously very effective at blanketing the story. So a lot of it is a function of, just how much is brought to covering these things and how much media are out there. But it’s one of the things that I’ve noted for a long time. You know there’s almost a death of shock in this country that so many things have come at us that we process them very quickly, and move on to the next thing. And it’s part of our reality, certainly as journalists, how people consume information and how quickly they consume it.

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