NEW YORK — New “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt says he doesn’t believe the broadcast needs to take special steps to rebuild trust among viewers following Brian Williams’ demotion, even as NBC’s first advertisement promoting him lauds his dependability.
“If I thought I was coming into a role to fix something, I probably would think twice,” said Holt, who moved into the job officially Monday. Holt had been subbing for Williams since his predecessor’s suspension in February, but last week NBC said Holt would replace him permanently.
Williams was assigned to a lesser role at MSNBC after the network found several instances where he lied about his reporting experiences.
NBC has begun running a television ad promoting the former understudy, with the narrator proclaiming: “When it really matters, you can depend on him.”
Holt said he believed his work speaks for itself, and that people who have watched him on NBC News over the past 15 years know what they are getting.
“People perceive this as being about Brian Williams himself rather than being about the network,” said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies the content of network news broadcasts. “If there had been a backlash against NBC News as a whole, it would have happened by now.”
NBC’s “Nightly News” has generally run neck and neck in the ratings with ABC’s “World News Tonight” over the past two months. NBC had a clear lead before Williams’ downfall, but ABC’s broadcast with David Muir had been gaining.
There’s one key difference in Holt’s role. Unlike with Williams, Muir and CBS’ Scott Pelley, Holt was not given the title of his broadcast’s managing editor. That’s been noticed, even if the executive producer is generally considered the behind-the-scenes boss of a nightly newscast.
Holt said it was something he hadn’t really thought about. He said he was comfortable his voice will be respected, even if he doesn’t have final authority over content, and that he won’t hesitate to speak up if he doesn’t feel comfortable about something.
“It’s a good relationship, and that’s all I would ever ask for,” he said.
He’s the first African-American to be the sole anchor of a network evening newscast; Max Robinson was part of a team on ABC more than three decades ago. Holt takes pride in the achievement as he downplays it, saying he looks forward to a day when it isn’t an issue.
“I’m very mindful of the significance,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with a job like this and that’s one of them. That’s one of the responsibilities. I’m gratified by those who have taken pride in that. I’ve never made race a big part of who I am.”
Before his ascension into what is considered one of the top jobs in network news, Holt said he figured he had gone about as far as he would go. At 56, the same age as Williams, Holt was NBC’s “Weekend Today” and weekend “Nightly News” anchor, and host of “Dateline NBC.” He was a news anchor in Chicago in the 1990s.
He’s practiced what he preaches to aspiring journalists, that they should become the “Swiss Army Knife” of their organizations, and said his promotion validates that approach.
“I’ve tried to build my career around the notion that NBC can work me any way they see fit or need,” Holt said in an interview. “You can send me to some disaster overseas, you can send me to a political convention, you can have me doing feature stories on the ‘Today’ show.”
A few hints of how a Holt-anchored “Nightly News” would differ from Williams have emerged over the past few months.
Tyndall said the low-key Holt has shortened the broadcast’s introduction to move more directly into reports from the field; Holt said one of his goals is to build the profiles of NBC’s correspondents. Holt has also shortened a pop culture-focused segment in the center of the broadcast and reduced the amount of celebrity news, Tyndall said. Holt said he wants to go on the road for stories as often as he can. But he doesn’t think viewers will see a vastly different show.
It’s not exactly the way he wanted to assume a job like this.
“There have been many a day when I’ve gotten out of bed, looked in the mirror and (wondered) ‘What’s happening here?’ ” he said. “Everything I’ve done in my career, hopefully, has prepared me for an opportunity like this, no matter how it came about.”