Lester Holt settles into 'NBC Nightly News' anchor job, visits 11 Alive, meets Jeff Daniels

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Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

caption arrowCaption
Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News randomly ran into actor Jeff Daniels, who happened to be visiting the Museum of Civil and Human Rights on am off day from shooting the "Divergent" film series. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News randomly ran into actor Jeff Daniels, who happened to be visiting the Museum of Civil and Human Rights on am off day from shooting the "Divergent" film series. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

caption arrowCaption
Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News randomly ran into actor Jeff Daniels, who happened to be visiting the Museum of Civil and Human Rights on am off day from shooting the "Divergent" film series. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Friday, August 21, 2015

NBC's news operation has had a rough time since Brian Williams' well-publicized exaggerations and prevarications forced him out of the "NBC Nightly News" anchor chair earlier this year and into what will soon be a less prominent role on MSNBC.

Fortunately for the network, long-time weekend anchor Lester Holt was ready to take over in what has been a relatively seamless transition. Although he's been evening anchor since early February, Holt only officially took over the seat in June.

In recent weeks, 56-year-old Holt has been making visits to local news affiliates to allay any fears that its national brethren was in trouble. He's a calming force, whose presence at 11 Alive this morning resulted in a flurry of social media posts by the likes of Jaye Watson, Valerie Hoff DeCarlo and Jeff Hullinger.

After 11 Alive, Holt briefly visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights before hitting the airport to get back to New York for tonight's show. I nabbed a few minutes with him in his town car on his way to Hartsfield Jackson.

"That place really moved me," Holt said, referencing the museum, not the airport. "I really would like to come and spend more time there."

At the museum, he even ran into "Newsroom" actor Jeff Daniels, wearing a t-shirt and cargo shorts on an off day from shooting "Divergent," at the museum. And Holt tried the interactive lunch counter where visitors can experience what it was like for sit-in protesters seeking desegregation were verbally and often physically abused.

"It was intense," he said.

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Lester Holt trying out a simulated segregated lunch counter sit in, which features the sound and feel of being bullied. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

Lester Holt trying out a simulated segregated lunch counter sit in, which features the sound and feel of being bullied. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

caption arrowCaption
Lester Holt trying out a simulated segregated lunch counter sit in, which features the sound and feel of being bullied. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

"NBC Nightly News" was No. 1 for years under Williams' reign, slipped a bit in the spring after the flurry of bad publicity but recovered over the summer. The newscast has been No. 1 for seven of the past eight weeks, averaging more than 8 million viewers, beating No. 2 "World News Tonight" on ABC with David Muir.

"I'm grateful to say since the show was handed over to me, we've been No. 1 across the board," Holt said. "But no victory laps. It's a very tight race every night. You've got to bring it every night."

He was told by his bosses to act like he owned it even before he was given the full-time job.

"I now have license to look back and see how we do things," Holt said. "We've made some very subtle changes. You'll notice the broadcast has a different look."

At the same time, Holt said viewers are very loyal and don't want too much change. Fortunately, Holt is a familiar face to NBC viewers, thanks to his frequent "Dateline" appearances (and yes, he also hosts the "Dateline" repeats that show on Investigation Discovery), plus his weekend and fill-in anchoring over the years.

"We didn't have to go over the 'Who is that guy?' hump," Holt said. "This is certainly within my wheelhouse. I was naturally nervous given the extraordinary circumstances. There might have been unease within the audience. But they stuck with us. That's a testament to the entire organization."

He said he and Williams are friends who acknowledged how awkward things were during his suspension. Once Williams was brought back into the fold (albeit in a different position), "it was a really cleansing moment," Holt said. "We were able to share what we were thinking. We were on the same page. That was nice to know."

Holt knows that the evening anchor job is not the omnipotent position it once was in the Walter Cronkite days when news options were limited.  "People don't have to watch us," he said. "I can glance on my phone and find out what's going on."

Luckily, he said there is an audience for the three evening news programs, which still collectively draw more than 20 million viewers a night.

"I think we're a voice of clarity in a murky world," Holt said. "Social media is terrific in terms of broadening our horizons but there is no fact checking, a lot of rumors and plain old falsehoods. People check in on us to find out exactly what happened, to find out what the news means to them."

He also said local news operations like 11 Alive remain valuable for hyper local news coverage. When Holt was in local news in the 1980s and 1990s, he said he'd get sent out to Somalia to cover famine or any big national story. Those days are more or less over.

One subject he'd like to address more on "NBC Nightly News" is technology. "I'm a tech geek," he said. "It's also the new frontier for crime."  He noted that we've become so attached to our smartphones: "Our lives revolve around digital access. The few times you go to places without it, you feel naked!"

He still likes to go in the field when a big news story breaks. "I went to Baltimore to cover the riots and Philadelphia for the Amtrak crash and Texas for the floods," Holt said, ticking off some recent stories. "We were in Cuba last week for the reopening of the U.S. embassy. I tell young people all the time the most rewarding exciting moment of my career was not sitting behind a fancy glass desk," he said.

His favorite story he ever covered was while he was at MSNBC: the 2000 Bush/Gore election fracas and the protracted Florida recount that dragged on for weeks. "It was so contentious," he said. "It was fascinating. It didn't involve terrorism or death or war. It just had all these twists and turns. There was no precedent for it."

The most tragic and close to home event in his career was 9/11. His family was just two miles from Ground Zero when the planes crashed into the towers. He was in Secaucus eight miles away at what was then MSNBC headquarters, where he anchored for eight consecutive hours without even taking a bathroom break. It was the only time, he said, that he wanted to be with his family and not actually working.

We also talked a bit about Jimmy Carter's cancer disclosure Thursday. Holt had the honor of interviewing the former president a couple of times in the past. He said he was in a story meeting yesterday and they turned on the volume to watch Carter's press conference. "We were dabbing our eyes," Holt said. "Just to watch this guy with such a positive attitude accept his mortality and faith in his doctors. If I get that type of news, I want to be this guy. We were all moved by it. We led off with it. The competition didn't. I didn't question our decision. It was an extraordinary moment."

ON TV

"NBC Nightly News," 6:30 p.m. weekdays, WXIA-TV (11 Alive)

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