While accepting the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award Thursday night, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt showed surprising self-awareness as he devoted most of his speech to admitting that the news media must listen to critics and “strive to be better.” It was a far cry from his last acceptance speech after winning the Edward R. Murrow Award in March, when he declared that “fairness is overrated.”
He started with standard media whining that people don’t believe their biased reporting. “I will argue we have in fact been a beacon of information through this crisis [the pandemic]It is. Unfortunately at a time many Americans are distrustful of traditional sources of facts, summarily reject what we do, and are more likely to answer the siren’s call of fantasy.” Holt fretted: “It leaves journalism without its voice or certainly mutes it, and the world really needs our voice right now.”
The anchor then assured: “I’m really trying not to make this another one of those ‘woe is us’ speeches or ‘we are not enemies of the people’ speeches.” However, he warned: “…if we are serious about pushing back against the assault on journalism in this country, I think we’re going to have to listen, read the room, and self-reflect.”
Holt spoke about taking criticisms of his work seriously:
We receive emails daily from our viewers. Sometimes, I check Twitter to find out who is saying it after the broadcast.Many people post harshly critical comments in posts and emails. These remarks are out of target ….occasionally there are remarks or observations that sting or touch a nerve and aren’t so off base. Not so much for the factual errors but rather more for context and tonal issues.
He acknowledged that those “are critiques that nag at the back of my mind”And cause him “to admit to myself, you know, we could have been better. It would have been more accurate, better. And I make a mental note for the next time.”
After noting how much the media landscape has changed and the reality that “audiences don’t have to come to us,” Holt urged his fellow journalists: “We have to strive to be better.Today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be even better. And it means a willingness to look into the mirror sometimes.”
Though he again felt the need to reassure his colleagues that he wasn’t buying too much of the criticism: “I know it sounds like I’m winding up for some big variation of blame the victim, suggesting journalism has somehow brought the anti-press assault upon itself. Believe me, I am not. I don’t believe that for a second.”
Holt still advised Holt to be gentle: “Our voices as journalists have never been more important and we cannot become what are fervent critics want us to be: tone deaf. We have to strive to be pitch perfect.”
While complaining that “facts are under assault,” he cautioned: “We can’t write off every ill word spoken about us with mockery and disdain. Not if we’re going to be that trusted beacon of information. Not if we’re going to be the established counterweight of false narratives.”
Holt asked: “We are witnessing a giant reset in this country….What makes us think journalism is immune to reset?”He implored: “…we must break free from the echo chambers that too often drown out independent storytelling.”
Holt concludes his address by observing:
I realize I raise more questions in all this than I answer, but they’re questions we cannot be afraid to process because It isn’t the same old times when we were the most respected and trusted voice in the room. We’re still the ones doing a lot of the talking. The answers might be found at least in part by listening. Sometimes you do have to care about what they’re saying about you.
The real question is whether Holt will practice what he preaches or if he still thinks “fairness is overrated.”
Here is a partial transcript of Holt’s October 21 remarks:
9:00 PM ET
LESTER HOLT: I have to tell you, I thought we’d be past this by now. Truthfully, I thought that many things would have been different. That the pandemic would be journalism’s finest hour. The pandemic was a beacon of information, much like the 9/11 attacks, that brought together people willing to give their lives for one another and save each other. We all know the outcome.
We have been, in fact, a beacon for information during this crisis. Unfortunately at a time many Americans are distrustful of traditional sources of facts, summarily reject what we do, and are more likely to answer the siren’s call of fantasy. I’m not gonna tell you anything you don’t know. This leaves journalism with little voice. It certainly reduces it. Our voice is needed right now. An advocate for clarity and fidelity.
I’m really trying not to make this another one of those “woe is us” speeches or “we are not enemies of the people” speeches. Believe me, I’ve given some of those. Knowing what our peers in places like Afghanistan and Myanmar face makes it pretty hard to dwell on the criticism we’ve received. But if we are serious about pushing back against the assault on journalism in this country, I think we’re going to have to listen, read the room, and self-reflect.
When I started in this business, if someone didn’t like something they saw on TV, they sent letters or called. You can imagine that you are picking up the telephone. For a short period in the seventies, I worked summer relief as a receptionist at a TV station in Sacramento, answering calls at the switchboard, “Good evening, KCRA.” I fielded complaints about everything from the anchors appearances to why a favorite show was preempted. It was amazing how people would become so upset over seemingly insignificant things. Most of them I kind of wrote off, I even hung up on a few or told them if they didn’t like what they were watching, they might try changing the channel. Keep in mind that I was only a teenager, and very immature. However, I will always remember those angry calls that were legitimate and they had a valid complaint.
Today, we receive emails from viewers. Sometimes I even skim Twitter following a broadcast to read what they are writing. Some of the harshly critical comments that are shared in posts and emails by people are not on target. There are some incendiary comments that don’t merit a reply or comment, and most of the stuff just kind of rolls off your face. But like those callers to the TV station, occasionally there are remarks or observations that sting or touch a nerve and aren’t so off base. We are being called out on how the story was reported. Not so much for factual errors, but rather more context and tonal points.
I find them to be a constant reminder of the things that bother me. And when I finally allow myself to acknowledge some truth to their criticism, I’m able to admit to myself, you know, we could have been better. I think we could have done better. Make a mental note of the next time.
When I started in news way back in the late ’70s, a press card would open a lot of doors. It was a fact that we had to be legitimate and have rights. Journalists were in a high-stakes time. Watergate was still fresh on our minds. The three main network night programs were one of the most important sources for news. Of course today, newsmakers don’t have to come through us and audiences don’t have to come to us. There are many bypass filters. It is our responsibility to improve. Every day can be better than yesterday and even more so tomorrow. It also means that you must be willing to see yourself in the mirror occasionally.
Yes, it seems like I’m going to blame journalism for the anti-press attack on myself. Believe me, I am not. I don’t believe that for a second. The stories we’re covering today are stories of a lifetime – the pandemic, democracy on the ropes. We’ve got to be in the game. We must not be a wounded self, but an open-minded, capable, and capable, and capable, of learning and growing, and of correcting ourselves when needed. Journalism is more crucial than ever. To be perfect, we must strive.
Gaslighting is a growing problem. Facts are being questioned. We can help fill that space, however, between what people say and what they know in their hearts and what feels good to believe versus what doesn’t. We can’t write off every ill word spoken about us with mockery and disdain. Not if we’re going to be that trusted beacon of information. Not if we’re going to be the established counterweight of false narratives.
We are witnessing a giant reset in this country – from the workplace, the way we shop, our values, our beliefs, our levels of tolerance. We are not sure journalism can withstand a reset. It doesn’t mean that our principles or credo must be changed because the world is constantly changing. If we can’t lump criticism – I should say we can’t lump criticism into one-size-fits-all containers or fall victim to the mistaken belief that we’re the only ones that get to ask the questions. We must also get rid of the echo chambers which often drown out independent storytelling.
Our role in the future must be based on our passion for news. How can we fix the damage to free, independent journalism in America? How can we fix it? We need to fix the industry with all its faces and many directions.
I realize I raise more questions in all this than I answer, but they’re questions we cannot be afraid to process because it is not the old days when ours was the loudest and most trusted voice in the room. We’re still the ones doing a lot of the talking. Listening may help you find the right answers. Sometimes you do have to care about what they’re saying about you.