If the description above makes you rub your eyes in disbelief, well, mission accomplished. “There is nothing normal about holding a town hall event at a maximum-security prison,” says Dan Slepian, a “Dateline” producer and specialist in criminal justice who worked with Holt on the project.
News organizations are pushing themselves beyond normal operations at a time when their customers’ appetite for information about a complex and quickly changing world is on the rise. The average combined audience for primetime programming at Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN rose 8% in 2018, according to Pew Research, while total revenue rose 4% to a total of $5.3 billion. The average number of monthly unique visitors to the U.S. news outlets with the highest traffic has risen to approximately 22.4 million in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with nearly 19 million in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Just as NBC News is testing a multi-program approach to analyzing criminal justice, CNN will no doubt examine viewership of what is expected to be multiple hours of a town hall devoted to climate change, slated to take place tonight. Anchors will interview several Democratic candidates for president on the issue in the late afternoon and in prime time. MSNBC and NBC News will cover another climate change forum, held by Georgetown University, later this month.
The toughest part of these events appears to be in the organizing, not the broadcasting. NBC News faced an unprecedented set of challenges in taping its event in Sing Sing last month. The prison has stricter security measures than the White House: No outside communication devices are allowed in the facility. Even audience members for the event had to undergo security checks. And NBC News had to arrange for some pieces of its town hall set – built at the prison with a forklift and other heavy machinery the network procured on its own – to be sent from as far away as Las Vegas.
“We have never done anything like this,” says Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC News and MSNBC. “This is just taking the spirit of that town-hall conversation and taking it up ten notches.”
The spark for the project came from Slepian, who has long covered cases of wrongful conviction, and Holt, who in recent years has spent more time on cases of criminal justice reform. He was the first to snare an interview with Meek Mill, the rapper and musician who has tangled with the criminal justice system for years, for example, after Mill’s release from prison last year. Holt says his interest in the topic was in part sparked many years ago, when he covered a man being put to death by lethal injection for WBBM, the Chicago CBS station where he worked for many years. “You become very reflective in that moment: How did we get here?” he says.
Holt and Slepian approached NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack earlier this year about a broader look at criminal justice, making the point that the network could, with its various platforms and news programs, offer something that its competitors might not.
“He bought it,” says Holt. “From there, the onus was on us to deliver.”
Holt believes more Americans ought to wrap their minds around the issue. “I have been in many prisons in my reporting. One of the things I have experienced is that you are forced to see these inmates as people. You meet them and talk to them, and certainly, they are people who have made some really horrible choices in life in some cases,” says Holt. “But nonetheless, it is important for us to hear from them. One of the main statistics that hung in my mind is that 95% of people who are in prison are going to get out some day. They are going to be our neighbors, walking down the street next to us. They are going to be part of our community. So we all have to care. It’s in all of our best interest they come out of prison better people than when they went in.”
NBC News expects to mount projects of similar depth and complexity , says Jones. “We’ve got some really big swings in the next couple of months,” she says. Before then, Holt will have to hope viewers tune in to see him get out from behind bars.