Photo by Heidi Gutman courtesy of NBC News
You’ve covered more than your fair share of presidential elections. What’s been different about this particular campaign season thus far?
I think there’s a recognition that all of the campaigning is really being targeted at a fairly narrow slice of the American public because people are very entrenched on both sides. So, you know, it’s really interesting. We [journalists] think our role is to educate the voters about the issues and help them form their opinions and their choices. But these days, it seems like a lot of folks have already made up their minds.
And there’s a tendency for those people to watch certain networks based on their political leanings, so they may only be getting one point of view.
I would definitely say that there is—I’m going to coin a phrase here—a boutique-ization of news, in which you can shop around and find an outlet or a program that will describe the world in the way that you see it. There’s certainly a lot of that. Anytime I do a political segment and get the e-mails or comments on Twitter, it’s interesting how two people who were watching the same interview could come away [thinking] that I’m biased in two directions. Because folks are now very keyed in on anything that may go against their world view, I think there’s a tendency sometimes to describe that as a journalistic bias. Therefore, if I bring up something that may be hurtful to their point of view, it’s somehow a bias. I just call it being a reporter—that’s what I’ve always done. But people consume me through different lenses than they used to.
Speaking of being a reporter, your colleagues nicknamed you “Iron Pants” for your formidable staying power in the anchor chair. Do you still like going out in the field?
Well, let me just back up. “Iron Pants” dates back to my days when I was an anchor at MSNBC and I was there during some major stories. I was there for the 2000 election recap, 9/11, the beginning of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the nickname was given to me because I would spend an inordinate number of hours at the anchor desk. One day, I was at the anchor desk for nine hours [straight]. So I don’t know if that [nickname] was a reference to my ability to sit in the seat or my ability to avoid bathroom breaks. I never was clear on that.
I do enjoy getting out in the field. I wear a lot of hats at NBC. I’m the anchor of the Todayshow and Nightly News on the weekend, and that gives me a window of opportunity during the week to get out and do stories. I enjoy traveling. My first love is reporting. Because of my unique arrangement, I’m able to get out a lot. I get dispatched on big stories. So you’ll often see me covering major hurricanes or tornadoes. I covered the tsunami and quake in Japan, I covered the quake in Haiti and I covered the revolution in Egypt. And a couple of Thanksgivings ago, I spent some time in Afghanistan. I call it my own little personal buffet line, a little of this and that. No two weeks are alike. I never run out of good conversation at a cocktail party.
One of the dirty little secrets about being an anchor—while it’s prestigious and gives you a little more editorial input and often pays a little bit more money—is that it can sometimes be like golden handcuffs. You don’t get to leave the building. And I always tell young journalists who say, “I want to be the next Brian Williams or Lester Holt or Matt Lauer,” it’s great to be an anchor, but the most exciting and best times I’ve had in my years in this business have been outside the studio, not sitting at a desk. That’s where the real joy and privilege of being a reporter comes in.
Right. You get back to why you joined the business in the first place.
Sure. I mean, when I was in Sacramento, as a teenager I was an overnight and weekend disc jockey on KRAK radio [which was then a popular country music station]. A guy named Walt Shaw hired me with virtually no experience. I started there when I was a senior in [Cordova] high school. I did Saturday nights—midnight until 6 a.m. Then they let me DJ during the day on Saturdays and Sundays, and when I started college, they offered me a full-time job if I would [also] be a news guy. So they gave me a Jeep Cherokee. It was all painted up with the KRAK logo, and they put some police scanners and two-way radios in it. So there I was, shuffling off to City Hall and Board of Supervisors meetings and chasing police cars and fire trucks. I was immediately hooked. I was ready to launch a career as a broadcast journalist.
What excited you about that career?
Well, it was just the excitement of being there as things were happening and watching them unfold and knowing stuff before anybody else did and being able to question people.
I was always a news junkie. I remember growing up, we always had the news on and it was always a big part of our life, like watching election night. I used to love election night. Back in the day you actually had to stay up late to find out who won, before the statistical projections were a staple of coverage. I do miss that. I remember when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. I was already in my newsman mode. I whipped out my cassette recorder and made sure I recorded his resignation speech because I thought, “Someday I’ll play this for my kids.” Little did I know that they could click on the Internet.
So yeah, I used to watch the news religiously. I would practice in my bedroom with a tape recorder reading the newspaper, pretending like I was a news reporter. So to suddenly be doing it [professionally], I was like, “Wow, this is what I was meant to do.” It was natural for me to go out there and basically quench my thirst for information.
How did you go to college and work a full-time job at the same time?
It wasn’t easy. I was at Sac State and I took some night classes. I don’t remember how I did it, but I know at one point I was carrying 18 units and managing to work. I worked three weekdays—Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—and Saturday and Sunday. So I had the other two days during the week [for school]. But it was pretty rigorous.
Didn’t you do a stint at KCRA as well?
Believe it or not, that goes back even further. One summer day between my sophomore and junior year in high school, I walked down to KCRA-TV, presented myself at the front desk and said, “I’m interested in broadcasting. I’d like to be an intern. I’ll work for free and help out.” And a woman named Denise Barclay, the community affairs director, took a liking to me and actually said yes. To me, it was like, “Well, of course she’s saying yes.” I didn’t realize how unusual it was.
I was kind of an unofficial intern in that I wasn’t getting any units because I wasn’t in college, but I worked in the public affairs office there. I helped out—I did filing and ran errands. I would take the number 18 bus [from Rancho Cordova] to downtown and I would spend as much of my off time at the station as I possibly could. When I wasn’t working, I would sit in the control room and talk to people. At one point, they actually let me do a little bit of announcing for some of their promos, where you would hear my voice go, “Tonight on KCRA …”
So I worked there, and then I think when I was 16, I did my first TV story. The public affairs department produced a show called To Be Somebody: A Black Magazine. It was a monthly show about issues in the black community and Denise gave me the opportunity to actually shoot a story. So I went and did a story about the lack of diversity in the Sacramento Police Department. I interviewed the police and put this story together.
Is that how you learned you liked working in TV?
Actually, I liked radio more. I liked the immediacy of radio. Television has a lot more layers to it. Even for me to get on the air right now, there are a lot of moving parts. Back then in radio, you keyed the microphone to your two-way radio and said, “Put me on the air,” and somebody flipped the switch and you were on live describing whatever it was [you saw]. I used to sleep with police scanners on, that’s how sick I was. I would get up in the middle of the night if I heard something cooking on the scanner. I would go cover it. To this day, I love covering breaking news.
How did you then make the transition from radio to TV?
When I was 20 years old, I moved to San Francisco to work in radio [at KCBS]. The guy who hired me there, Jerry Nachman, was a longtime New York City newsman, and he took a liking to me and kind of nurtured my career. He went back to New York to become a TV [news director] and ultimately hired me again. So my first TV news job was in the No. 1 market in [the country], in New York City at WCBS-TV.
Going back to your Sacramento roots, when did you live here?
I moved to Sacramento twice, actually. My father was in the Air Force, and I was born [in 1959] in Hamilton Air Force Base just outside Navato in Marin County. He was stationed here around 1967 at Mather Air Force Base. We were here for a year or two and then came back to Sacramento when I was starting junior high—I attended Mitchell [in Rancho Cordova]—which would have been 1971. My father was stationed at Mather again and then he ultimately retired and we stayed in Rancho Cordova. My parents still live in the Sacramento area, and I have one brother in the area.
Given that, do you come back to visit your hometown often?
Yes, I get back to Sacramento probably a half-dozen times a year, if not more. It’s usually to just hang out with Mom and Dad and keep a low profile. There are two things on my agenda when I get to Sacramento. There’s Mexican food. They have Mexican food in the East, but it never tastes as good as it does in California. The Mexican restaurant I like is called El Jardín. It’s in Elk Grove—great little place. The enchiladas are my favorite. I always make my folks take me there when I’m in town. And then of course, In-N-Out Burger. We don’t have it out [in New York].
One [other] place I absolutely love is OneSpeed Pizza [in East Sacramento]. Last time I was there, I had a delightful Italian sausage pizza with heirloom tomatoes. It’s got a very comfortably hip vibe. I spotted Mayor Johnson there once. I’ll be back.
A couple of times, you’ve come back to do segments for the Today show where you revisited your junior high and high school. I know that you were the student body president in junior high. But I also read that in addition to being class president, you were the class clown. Is that true?
That accusation was hurled at me probably in comments in a few report cards: “If Lester would spend more time on his studies and less time trying to make the class crack up, he would probably do better at history.” I liked to do impressions. I was always mimicking someone. I think I used to do a Jimmy Carter impression. I liked to make people laugh, and I still do. I take what I do seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously.
That quality comes in handy for a job like hosting the Today show. On one recent morning, I saw you vogueing and then later dancing to Katy Perry’s song “California Gurls” on the Wii.
You had to mention that, didn’t you? My finest moment.
On Today, you also lamented that even though London was the sixth time you covered the Olympics, you still didn’t come home with a medal. I would argue that if bubble soccer were an Olympic sport, you would definitely be on the podium.
Yeah, I did pretty well! [In May, for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Holt and Fallon teamed up against Meet the Press moderator David Gregory, himself a KCRA alum, and Stephen Colbert to play soccer at an elevator bank inside the NBC studio building while wearing giant, inflatable ball suits. Team Holt-Fallon won 5-4.]
It’s one of those weird things about working at 30 Rock. You never know what a day is going to bring. I got an e-mail [saying] Jimmy Fallon’s producer wants to know if I can come on and do this thing, bubble soccer. I love Jimmy and the show and I like to help out whenever I can. I look at my calendar and I say, “Yeah, sure.” So I get there and I’m like, “What am I doing?” Then they explain it to me and I’m like, “You’re going to put me in a what?” Next thing you know, I’m rolling around the elevator lobby. It was hard to stay on your feet.
It was a lot of fun to watch. Looking ahead, where do you see yourself in the near or distant future?
At some point, I would fully expect I’ll stop anchoring, but I’ve never ever imagined retiring. There are lots of opportunities outside the daily grind of putting newscasts on the air. My idea of retirement would be to focus on doing long-term projects and showing up on the History channel. It would be fun to have the time to go off and spend a month and a half on a documentary project in Africa or the Middle East or something like that. That would be fulfilling to me.
But in terms of the next big rung on the ladder, I hit a point—and it took me a while to reach this point—where I realized that we spend so much time asking what’s next that we don’t seem to be able to enjoy what we’re doing [at the moment]. I’ve got unlimited opportunities at NBC. Anytime I have an idea of something I want to do, I’m supported. So I’m really enjoying things right now. I’m having fun.