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‘Nightly News’ Host Lester Holt Is Reporting on America’s ‘Pain’ Beyond the Headlines

lester-holt-NBC-Nightly-News
Courtesy of NBC News

TV viewers know “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt will deliver the latest headlines in the national news cycle. Over the past few nights, however, he’s been offering something else: empathy.

Over four recent nights, Holt has served up short essays aimed at putting the nation’s recent chaos – a mix of an unavoidable pandemic, a faltering economy, and protests over racial injustice – into new perspective. Simply put, he is telling viewers that they are not alone in a moment of national instability.

“It is the season of our despair. A new pandemic we can’t control – coronavirus.  And an old epidemic we can’t control either – an aching legacy of racial inequality,” Holt said during Friday’s “Nightly” broadcast. “How much more can we take?” On Monday, he spoke of “An anguished and weary America asking, when will this all end? When will the protests end? When will the police brutality that triggered them end? The virus, the financial ruin that have taken us to the edge, when will they end?”

The anchor says he is trying to give the broader audience tuning in these days to the nation’s evening-news programs more context, and even a sense of community. “I don’t want to overstate my role, but this is an influential broadcast. I only want viewers to understand that I’m seeing what they are seeing, that you’re not making this up. This is happening, and it is affecting us,” he says in an interview. “I think part of continuing to get the trust of a viewer is to be forthcoming and reflect that you’re not sitting in some ivory tower someplace, that you are experiencing what they are experiencing.”

A recent surge in the evening-news audience may lend the people who build the broadcasts new conviction. In a different era, one of TV’s biggest and most stable audiences faithfully tuned in the evening news as a sort of daily ritual. As more people stay at home due to the pandemic, a sense has emerged that the format is serving modern audiences in a similar way. “I think we are seeing a revival with the evening news,” says Bob Schieffer, the longtime CBS News anchor who led both “CBS Evening News” and “Face The Nation” for periods of time.  “It’s kind of a touchstone for people.”

All three evening-news programs have gained momentum in recent weeks, though there are new signs that viewership may erode as the nation attempts to open businesses and recreation facilities more widely. For the week of May 25, total viewership for “Nightly News” was 8.3 million, up 13% over the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen. But that figure was off 4 % from the prior week. In the current race among networks, “Nightly” is second to ABC’s “World News Tonight,” but head of “CBS Evening News.”

Commentary on the evening news has waxed and waned. During Katie Couric’s tenure at “CBS Evening News,” producers tested the use of guests to deliver opinion segments, but the venture didn’t last long. NBC’s “Huntley Brinkley Report” was known to use commentary segments from time to time. Eric Sevareid contributed commentary segments to “CBS Evening News,” Schieffer recalls, that would likely never be allowed today. “They were three minutes long,” he says. “With no pictures.”

Others have tried to limit the evening news to, well, just that. Walter Cronkite, says Schieffer, remained wary of it during his tenure on the CBS mainstay. And yet, one of the anchor’s best-known moments came when he offered his thoughts on Vietnam – “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion”  – on a prime-time special.

An evening-news anchor has some leeway to bring a point home with analysis or summary, says Beth Knobel, an associate professor in Fordham University’s department of communication and media studies. “People have come to rely on the evening news to be that electronic front page for what’s going on in America, and the anchors are still very much seen as figures of trust,” she says.

There may be some industry pressure on the broadcast-news outlets, she says, which provide evening-news programs as a sort of summary of the daily cycle after some viewers have spent the day tuning to cable competitors. Those shows often feature colorful debate and conflict. “The tension between staying objective and voicing opinion started at the birth of television news,” she says. “This is something that journalists have always struggled with and are still struggling with today.”

Holt has considered use of the technique for some time.  In April, he suggested to Variety that his evening-news program may have to evolve as the times grew more dire. “As this story potentially becomes more grim, we are going to have to look at our tone,” he said.

The anchor writes the essays himself, noting that in the current news cycle “they usually come pretty easy.” He may find time for another while traveling to Minneapolis, where on Thursday he is expected to anchor “NBC Nightly News” from that city in the wake of a memorial service being held for George Floyd, the Black man who died while in police custody and on camera.  Holt will also lead a primetime special, “America in Crisis,” slated to air on NBC at 10 p.m. eastern.

Holt has offered viewers perspective on current events on several past occasions, but his efforts to do so seem to have increased in the last few years. “Sometimes you have to step back and acknowledge that there’s more than just the story that’s right in front of our faces, that it’s affecting people in broader kinds of ways,” he says.  He believes on some nights, viewers appreciate “a way through words to acknowledge this broader pain, and unease and anxiety.”

Should “Nightly News” regulars expect to hear commentary on most nights going forward? Probably not, says the anchor.  “You don’t want to dip into that well too often,” says Holt. “Things are only special when they’re special.”