For this week’s cover story, David Muir, Scott Pelley, and Lester Holt sat down last week in New York with Variety senior TV editor Brian Steinberg for a candid conversation about the news business. See the interview below in its entirety.
Brian Steinberg: Welcome. Thanks for coming along. We appreciate you taking some time to talk to Variety about the news business and the news cycle. More importantly: How rare is it for you guys to be in the same room, let alone the same area?
David Muir: It’s making us a little nervous … It’s a very slow news cycle, with nothing going on in the world.
Scott Pelley: We don’t actually see each other very much.
Lester Holt: No, we generally see each other at the scenes of big stories. I think in Orlando we were almost in a row together and we were on a hurricane in Florida not long ago.
Pelley: And we all got on the same plane together, which was a first in my experience, anyway. We were all there together but we actually don’t see each other as much as I’m sure we’d like to.
Muir: I have you both on DVR. I watch more of you at home than I do live.
Steinberg: What’s it mean to be an anchor in 2017 versus say, you know, Walter Cronkite or Frank Reynolds? How is the job different now than it was 20 to 30 years ago?
Muir: Well, listen, I actually think for all the talk that there’s so much competition out there now. So many voices all day long. You get the news on your iPhone from the moment you wake up in the morning. People often talk about the dying evening news or the increased competition being bad for the evening news. I actually see it differently. I think, more than ever, we’ve all talked about this, people are looking for a place to cut through the noise particularly in this moment. To cut through the noise and at 6:30, hopefully they’re finding that. I think the stakes are even higher, really, for the three of us that we do that. That we don’t waste peoples time and that we generally find a way to ask the questions that they’re asking all day long as they’re bombarded with all this information whether it be in a tweet or an email or an alert when they’re checking.
Holt: I mean, it’s different. We understand that it’s not like the ’60s or ’70s where you had to come home at night and watch one of these shows to find out what happened. We recognize that people know what’s going on. They know the hits, runs, and errors of the day before they sit down and watch us. So, it’s added value. It’s how do we take these stories of the day and make them apply to people’s lives. Help them understand, you know, what is happening, how it’s happening, how it’s going to affect them.
Pelley: We’ve all talked about how relevant we are in this internet age … that never before in human history has more information been available to more people. But it’s also true never in human history has more bad information been available to more people. So, one of the reasons all three of our broadcasts have been growing over these last six years or so, I believe, is because people are looking for brand names. They’re looking for people that they can trust. They’re looking for people that they know worked all day long trying to get the story right and to make it nice and concise and understandable.
Muir: I do feel if we underestimate the viewer it’s at our own peril. I think Americans are a lot smarter than many give them credit for. I think people are informed these days as Scott points out you can get any information you want at any point during the day. I think they come to us with an expectation perhaps that’s a little different than 5, 10 years ago. They have access to their own interests, their own viewpoints and I think at 6:30 the demands are higher when it comes to what we do even though it’s been done for many, many years. But I think it becomes even more important in the age of noise hitting you all day long before you even get home.
Pelley: You mentioned Walter and, of course, he was famously voted in a poll the most trusted man in America but that could never happen today because we live in a much more skeptical society than we did in the ’60s and ’70s and I think that’s, largely, a good thing. I think the American people are asking all of us to be transparent and to explain our process to them so that they can see how we know what we know.
Holt: I think critical thinking has always been important it’s more important now certainly in the political world but I also think it’s worthy, you know, that people take a hard look at what they consume and under the label of news and make sure it’s the real thing. I think we would all stand that test quite well but I think it’s more important than ever that people begin to ask where’s their information coming from and what’s the credibility of that information.
Steinberg: It’s hard when every day the President of the United States is besmirching the media. The media is fake news, this isn’t true, they got this wrong. How do you, in the evening news, function in that kind of atmosphere? Do you have to fight harder or make a point stronger? Is there anything you can do in that kind of atmosphere?
Holt: I think there’s been an arc in our business. A first like “oh my goodness, what is happening” and woe is us. What I’ve seen the past few weeks now is everyone is kind of like this is an amazing time to do what we do. To be journalists, to stand up and ask tough questions, to take the hits as they come but really fulfill our role which is to hold people accountable.
Muir: Ultimately when you … you know I walked into the White House a couple of weeks ago to interview the President and when you walk in there and I’m sure you do the same thing, I always think about what it is the viewer at home wants asked. It helps drive the debates when you’re sitting there at the debate, it helps drive interviews and particularly at this moment when you’re hearing about criticism of the media and of journalism and I completely agree with Lester. There is no more important a time to be a journalist than right now.
I think as long as we’re asking what people at home are asking, from all ends of the spectrum, we recognize that particularly after this election, we’re broadcasting to a divided America. You know, there’s half of the country that feels as though finally they’ve been heard. That they’ve been left behind by all this talk of a recovering economy that they didn’t have access to. Those people feel as though they’ve been finally heard in this election and then you have 65, 66 million people who were asking how did this happen. And that doesn’t go away the day after the election. I think that’s sort of the driving principle of what we’ve been doing since, is to know that there are people really still on both sides of this and we’ve got to find a way to ask the questions that they want answered no matter where they’re coming from.
Pelley: The President said recently that he was in a running war with the media and somebody asked me “are you at war with the administration?” and the answer to that, of course, is no. To suggest that we’re at war is to suggest that we’re trying to win something and none of us is trying to win anything. We’re trying to get the facts straight every day and lay them out for the audience to decide what they mean. So, I don’t think it matters very much that the President and others in the administration talk about the dishonest media and being at war with the media. Our job is unchanged, it is the same. Find the facts, present the truth, let the audience know what our process is.
Holt: I don’t think it does us any good to engage in a running debate and try to counter ever accusation of dishonest media. The people that sit down with us every evening, they understand the tradition of these organizations, the depth of the journalism, the depth of the talent. I don’t think we have to defend ourselves on a day-in, day-out basis. I think we’ve put on, you know, intelligent broadcasts and that wins the day.
Muir: The other thing too is that people let us know in real time. I mean, I grew up watching Peter … the time of Peter, Dan, Tom and they were the masters at having a conversation with America but, today, this is a two way conversation. We are a lot more accessible. Not just bumping into each other on airplanes and taking selfies but the viewers literally let me know during the broadcast what they think of a particular story in real time and I do read that and it can be difficult to read and I don’t take it personally. But it serves as a powerful reminder that, again, it’s a diverse audience, it’s a divided audience and we have to speak to everyone who’s watching every night. That’s not … you can’t do that perfectly but you can strive to do that particularly in this moment.
Steinberg: Scott, on Monday you had a very hard opening line for the lead of the news about the President’s divorce from reality. Do you think you were being too hard? Do you feel you were just calling balls and strikes?
Pelley: No, I don’t think we were being too hard at all it was just empirically true. The President had said a number of things that day that were false. I think it’s incumbent upon us, all of us, we all believe this to help our audience sort out fact from fiction. We haven’t had a White House or a President like this before and we’re all still trying to figure out how to cover it every day but when we said on the broadcast the other day that it had been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality, we then went through those statement that had just been from that day and compared them to the empirical truth that our research department had been able to come up with. It’s important that the audience has an opportunity, I think, to hear a comparison of what the President is saying to what the actual facts are.
Steinberg: Lester, you recently broadcast from the Statue of Liberty to help frame the immigration debate. Can you tell us how that came about and what effect that had on the broadcast that night?
Holt: Well, after watching all the reaction to the immigration order I though what’s at question here is what are our ideals as a country versus what is are our security needs as a country and I thought we’ve got that huge symbol sitting here in New York harbor and what better place to frame the broadcast. But not as some statement that this is the mission of the United States but more to frame the conversation. And that was that, on that statue are inscribed what we think are the ideals of this welcoming America. But, the question we’re posing in this broadcast is that still relevant in a time of international terrorism and we took it from there. It was, if you watch with the sound down, you might have taken it as some kind of political statement but hopefully people had the sound on and they understood that we thought, I thought, that it was an important place to frame the discussion that Americans were having.
Steinberg: David, you recently interviewed President Trump. Did you feel it was a successful one? Do you feel he was evasive or do you think he answered your questions successfully?
Muir: I mean, it’s interesting. You know, it’s funny and I’m sure you guys will agree. When you leave, you don’t look at it in terms of whether it was successful or not because that’s for everyone at home to decide and, honestly, they will and they will in real time as it’s playing. Again, we get the feedback. But, what drove me during the interview, first of all, is respect for the White House, the respect for whoever it is in that role at a given time.
I thought, going into that White House, it was my job to ask the President what people at home wanted us to ask and we spent days working on those questions. I also think we’re beyond the campaign, we’re beyond the election. This is the President. This was an opportunity, an hour in prime time, to let the President talk. To explain where he’s coming from, but to really press him on some of these statements that have been fact checked in real time that the President has offered and then to allow people at home to listen to how he responds to those follow ups. Again, with enough time.
It was interesting to watch the reaction, I think that again we’re reminded that the country feels very divided right now. There were people who said “thanks so much for the follow ups, for pressing the President” and then there were others, and this was a positive sign I thought, who said “thank you for letting the President actually speak” so we can hear how he’s forming these opinions. Who’s the man behind this message. To that end, a first interview at the White House, I hope it was a success but ultimately the viewers decide that and I do think I’ll certainly remember it as he begins this first term and taking us through the Oval Office and West Wing and ending with an image that so many people had talked about, the inauguration. It was something that we won’t forget and we always appreciate when we get the call and they say “come on in to the White House.”
Steinberg: Was it one of your tougher assignments, in the grand scheme of things, or was it easy? How would you characterize it?
Muir: There was the Pope in Spanish. That was … I agreed to do that and then said “What?” So I always, you know, that was a little tricky too but, yes, the stakes were high in this one but only because you want to do well by the people who are watching. Even more so than the President, and I have great respect for the person who has that highest office in the land but I also have a profound respect for the people who had lived through this campaign, our viewers, and the voters across this country that we had a responsibility to really cut through the noise and press the President on some really important issues from health care to immigration to the people who marched the day after his inauguration and we asked about all that.
Steinberg: For all three of you, are there other questions that you think people want to see the President Trump answer that he hasn’t answered quite yet?
Holt: Well, I think there’s, there are certain things he has laid out there that he tends to make very broad statements but I think there are specifics … there’s no better example than health care. This idea of repealing and replacing. It hasn’t happened yet, we keep hearing it’s going to be a grand plan. I think that’s one, especially the 20 million plus who are depending on this coverage really want that answer.
Pelley: There are many other examples as well. The President said he had a plan for health care. We haven’t seen that yet as Lester was saying. He said he had a plan for ISIS. We don’t know what that is. I think there are a lot of things that the President needs to tell the American people. Tax reform is another huge one. So, we’ll see these things roll out over the days and months. I remember I did an interview with the President, before he was inaugurated and I said “you know, being President of the United States is not like being CEO of America. Congress is going to tell you no, the Supreme Court is going to tell you no. There are laws you are going to have to conform to” and he looked at me and said “yeah, well, we’ll see” and I think he’s beginning to see.
Steinberg: We see some friction between some news networks and some of the President’s advisers and counselors. Should someone be off the air because they get caught in a fib or putting out ‘alternative facts,’ so to speak?
Holt: You know, listen, I think if they’re going to be on your air, you just have to be willing to press them. I know you’re talking about a particular headline involving another network but we haven’t said “you’re not going to be on” or “you are going to be on” based on a certain thing that you’ve said. But if somebody comes on the broadcast, whether it be Good Morning America or World News Tonight, at the end of the day, you’ve got to press them because people at home, again, are going to demand that. That’s part of this great moment and also this profound moment that people are on to the information and if you don’t ask that question, they’re going to then hold you accountable for not having asked that question.
Muir: I think one of the challenges were facing right now is that what the President says is often different from what his staff members will tell us. Not always on the same page or will offer an alternate explanation or try to perceive what he said. I think that’s a bit frustrating and that gets back to the whole issue of credibility that we’re all wrestling with.
Steinberg: We recently saw the Kremlin criticize Bill O’Reilly for asking a certain question or phrasing it a certain way. Do you ever worry if you’re going to be critiqued by the governments or that kind of thing when you do these interviews?
Pelley: You know, I never worry about criticism at all. I have, we have, CBS News and it’s true for NBC and ABC as well, we have standards and my effort every day is to try to live up to those standards. If we have lived up to those standards then it really doesn’t matter whether President Putin or President Trump or anyone else has criticism for what we’ve done. Journalism, this is something that some people miss … journalism has nothing whatever to do with popularity. If we all do our jobs right, we’re probably not going to be very popular with a large segment of our audience. Hopefully, that changes day to day and everybody hears something they like eventually. But, journalism has nothing to do with popularity and so therefore, criticism doesn’t bother me too much.
Holt: The only criticism that bothers me is when someone is right. I can read all the stuff on Twitter, anything. But, every once in a while you’ll read something and like “You know what? They’re right.”
Pelley: Which is very troubling.
Holt: We dropped the ball on that one. Or, I shouldn’t have said that. That’s important and that’s why David was talking about this real time feedback. It’s good, sometimes. But, yeah, I always tell people we’re going to sometimes make you mad. You’re going to want to throw something at the TV because, at some point, we’re going to tell you something that is going to be diametrically opposed of your world view or what you always believed to be true. That’s what we do in the news business. More than ever I keep reminding people this is not about being liked. They may like us, personally, hopefully they do. But our product, we’re not putting it out there to be liked necessarily every day.
Pelley: We’re not in this business to close minds, we’re in this business to open them. That can be a very painful experience sometimes.
Steinberg: The old story about evening news was that ratings are falling, fewer people are watching, people aren’t home in time to watch the broadcasts. But since ’08, we’ve seen numbers go up. Are people relying more on the evening news? Have they a newfound respect for it?
Muir: Listen, I think it’s really encouraging. I know that we’re grateful and I know that both of these gentlemen are too. That the viewers seem to be responding and, listen, if you look at Facebook and it’s called a news feed but it’s generally curates what your interests are, who your friends are the topics you’re interested in. If you go to certain cable news shows you’re generally going to hear the viewpoints that you already have reported back to you. I think there’s no harm in that.
I always say if you always watch that particular show, watch the opposite on, perhaps, another cable network to sort of balance it out. But I think when it comes to the three evening newscasts, the fact that you see a growing audience is really encouraging. That people, at 6:30, want to hear different viewpoints. I think there’s so much talk about how people are entrenched over here or over here.
But, when we travel the country, and we all have, even after the election … I’ve done Made in America for four or five years now traveling to these factories. For the most part, Americans have the same concerns. It’s the number one issue is usually the job and job security and education for their kids and opportunity to move beyond where your parents were. If we constantly remind ourselves of that when we’re out there reporting across the country and we see that the audience is growing, I think it’s actually an encouraging sign that people still want to hear opposing viewpoints or more than just the viewpoint that perhaps they have curated on their Facebook or their Instagram feed or even their Twitter account because you pick who you follow. So, I take that growing audience, not just as a great sign for our industry but a great sign about the interest level of the American people right now. They do care.
Steinberg: At what point do you see the stand-off between the administration and the networks easing, relations getting a little better, things breaking up a little bit?
Muir: I think the news cycle.
Holt: The news cycle has a way of I won’t say fixing things but reordering things. There has not been an overwhelming big story outside of government in a while. That will change. We know something will happen and our attention will go in a different direction. I think things like that will provide some space. The overall edge in the relationship won’t go away but it will give everyone a breather. Unfortunately, it may be for an awful reason but it will turn people’s attention in other directions.
Pelley: I don’t think it matters. As I said a few minutes ago, we’re not trying to win anything. We cover, NBC, ABC covers every President on their own merits. We try to get the stories right, we try to represent what it is that the President’s saying and what he intends to do for the country and compare that to the facts. A relationship between us and the White House I’m not particularly interested in. I think they owe the American people the benefit of being transparent and telling the American people precisely what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. It is incumbent upon us to transmit that to the public and also compare it to the facts.
Steinberg: Is there an interview that you haven’t done that you’d like to get done? This is probably a question that you get all the time.
Muir: Interesting question to ask, Brian, in front of the other anchors. If I reveal my bucket list…
Pelley: There may be a lot of similarities on the list.
Muir: I think so. That’s my point.
Holt: That’s always a tough one but, yeah, we’re probably all on the same folks.
Muir: I don’t remember the last time we saw, sort of, the anchors, if you will, of all the networks in one room and not only is it an honor to sit with these gentlemen here but it just reminds us of the privilege of what we get to do every single day. Like Scott said, no one’s trying to win anything up against any of these revered institutions in our country. We do have a responsibility and it’s more profound than ever I think.
Holt: We’re lucky to have our jobs. I mean, it’s 30 minutes, 23 outside commercials is not a lot of time to try and curate all the complicated issues of the day in that period is a testament to the talented people we get to work with every day who can help us put this in a concise manner. Sometimes I think about our short attention spans these days, it’s like the evening news show were kind of ahead of their game. Now, 30 minutes is actually a pretty good time. Beyond that, we’re like, I’ve gotta move on.
Muir: The problem is we write an hour every night. It’s excruciating.
Pelley: We all produce an hour long newscast every night and we get to present half of it. And that’s, as you were saying, the excruciating part is. What you lose sleep over is what you leave out of the broadcast more than what you put in the broadcast.
Muir: Especially when you see it end up on the other guys that night.
Holt: And we had it, right?
Pelley: Lester was just saying that we’re all lucky to have jobs and I couldn’t agree more. I could never have imagined in my life having the opportunity to do what the three of us do. And, no journalism professor at Texas Tech ever could’ve imagined it either, I’m sure. It is an enormous privilege, one which none of us takes lightly for a second.