WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Lester Holt has travelled the world covering stories for NBC News. The veteran journalist and anchor of the weekday edition of NBC Nightly News has reported from the scenes of wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes, letting viewers see the widespread damage and hear the heartbreaking stories of personal loss. There is an image from Mercer Avenue in Wilmington that registers as one of the most memorable of Lester’s career.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” the 60-year-old California native said recently from his office in New York City.
Lester had traveled to Wilmington as Hurricane Florence began to batter the North Carolina coastline. On September 14, 2018, Lester and his crew responded to a call about a rescue in progress on Mercer Avenue. A large tree had fallen onto a home during the storm, trapping a couple and their infant daughter inside. Wilmington Fire Department crews worked to rescue the family. A medical team arrived, and word spread about a possible amputation being done to bring someone out alive. Emergency responders wheeled the conscious father out on a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance. One life saved. Suddenly, firefighters began walking toward the street, some with tears flowing down their faces.
“At first, we thought essentially they had rescued everyone,” Lester recalls. “Instead, they gathered around very close, there were words being exchanged, and then they prayed. To watch them, some of them on their knees, arms around each other praying, undoubtedly was among, if not the most touching thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
While news crews captured video of the poignant scene, Lester snapped a picture to share on his social media accounts. He told me the image is still on his phone more than six months after the storm hit.
“At that moment, of course intellectually we know they deeply care about what they do,” he says about the men and women involved in that rescue. “But you saw the toll it takes of how much they invest, not only risking their lives but how much they risk their emotions. They so desperately wanted to bring all three of those people out of the house alive.”
Reporting from ground zero of such horrific disasters can take a toll even on the most hardened reporters. Lester traveled to cover the massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a disaster that by some estimates claimed more than 300,000 lives. When he returned to New York, Lester sought out the help of counselors NBC News provided to those who witnessed the suffering and devastation. He talks about it at 6:10 of the podcast.
“I have in the past been left with a sense of guilt that I drop into these places, I spent two, three, four, five days, and then I get back on the plane and go back to my life living in Manhattan and eating at nice restaurants,” he said. “The person who was running it reminded me that ‘yes, all true. But had you and other journalists from around the world not shined a light on that situation and the enormity of it, then we wouldn’t have seen the relief operations we did. I was reminded that was a product of journalists telling those stories of that suffering and the scale of the disaster. That really helped me reconcile what we do.”
Lester Holt was born in California and his family lived on several air force bases during his early years. He was drawn to reporting at a young age, even taping himself on a cassette recorder and playing it back in order to eliminate mistakes. Lester worked as a news reporter at a station in Sacramento, earning the nickname “Lightning Bolt Holt” for his knack at getting stories back to the newsroom. Jobs followed in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago before Lester was hired by NBC News in 2000. He hosted programs on MSNBC, reported for Dateline, became the anchor of Weekend Today and NBC Nightly News Weekend Edition before taking over the weekday anchor duties following Brian Williams’ exit in June 2015. We touched on many of those early memories, mentors, and circumstances of his career moves during the interview.
“Somewhere along the way I got some great advice, which was doors will open in your career at times when you don’t expect it,” he explained. “You don’t know when, or where. But all you can do is prepare yourself. I have been in situations where exactly that has happened.”
Lester has received many awards for his reporting and commitment to uphold the highest journalistic standards. In 2013, Lester received the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association, for his major contributions to the protection of First Amendment freedoms. The National Press Foundation selected him as the 2018 winner of the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. In February, Lester became the first Ambassador for The Poynter Institute’s MediaWise Project, an initiative to educate teenagers on “how to sort fact from fiction online”. He talks about that at 20:20 of the podcast.
“You know, we try to let the criticism of late roll off our backs, the ‘fake news’ and all that,” he said. “But the truth is, this is an opportunity to do something about it. Let’s work on ‘news literacy’. Let’s work on helping young people sift through all this stuff on social media and to identify the source of information and whether it’s legit or not.”
Lester and I talked about several other things, including his reaction to the mainstream news media being called “the enemy of the people”, moderating a presidential debate, and his son Stefan following in his father’s anchor footsteps. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
You can hear my full interview with award-winning journalist Lester Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News, by clicking on any of the links below.
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