NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt says that the coronavirus crisis is “potentially the biggest story I’ll ever cover,” a superlative that takes into account a career that saw momentous events including 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis.
On Thursday at 10 PM ET, Holt will anchor NBC News Special Report: Coronavirus Pandemic, with real-time information and updates about the rapidly evolving story, along with a collaboration with Facebook to take questions on NBC News and MSNBC’s Facebook and Instagram pages for its medical and reporting team. The special will run on NBC, MSNBC and its NBC News Now and Telemundo Digital platforms, and it’s among a number of primetime specials that all the networks are airing as they ramp up coverage of the crisis for the long term.
As dire as the worldwide pandemic now seems, Holt says that there also is the responsibility of informing the public but not inducing panic, and even to give viewers a sense of reassurance.
“As I told my staff here, like a week or two ago, ‘We’ve all covered the burning house, but this time we’re in the house.’ We’re all in the same house,” Holt told Deadline on Wednesday. “And so, you know, I don’t know that I’ve ever done a story that is so universal in its impact on people around the world.”
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DEADLINE: The barrage of information the public is getting is downright terrifying. Do you feel that it is part of your role to offer some kind of reassurance?
LESTER HOLT: I think that as a newscast of record, a newscast that for many people is traditional family viewing, I think there is a huge responsibility to tell the good, bad and ugly of a story in a way that is acknowledging it’s difficult.
I said something on the air last night, as I led into our feature at the end, that I know that there’s been a lot of grim stories in this newscast. But I think it’s important more important than ever to really identify with the audience. As I told my staff here, like a week or two ago, ‘We’ve all covered the burning house, but this time we’re in the house.’ We’re all in the same house. And so I don’t know that I’ve ever done a story that is so universal in its impact on people around the world. And so we have got to bring compassion, to be as forthright with people as we can, but also understand that we’ve got to tell this in a way that’s not going to send people running into the hills.
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DEADLINE; What precedent is there for this in your career?
HOLT: 9/11 is the easy answer. As I said to colleagues the other day, the minute that second plane hit the trade center, we all knew that the world just changed. There was no question about it.
This one, I remember the day [in January] that we were kind of deciding what our lead story was going to be. And there was a report that the U.S. was going to start screening passengers from a place called Wuhan, China. There was this outbreak. I think there was one confirmed death. And I remember thinking, ‘You know, is this our lead story? Is this big enough?’ And we did lead with it, I believe, that night, ultimately.
But this is a story, as I said in that same 9/11 metaphor, where the planes have been coming slowly, but they’re coming. And we’re beginning to see it play out right now.
When I was still at MSNBC in Secaucus, New Jersey, the Nightly News was targeted by the anthrax attacks, so that was obviously very personal for those who worked in this building. But in terms of magnitude of story, as I told my staff the other day, I think I’m seeing the story of my lifetime. This is potentially the biggest story I’ll ever cover.
DEADLINE: When did you realize that this was a 9/11-scale emergency?
HOLT: It’s hard to put a date on it. I would say maybe about two weeks ago, and I went out with one of the many experts we’ve hired, Joseph Fair, who is a virologist and an epidemiologist. And we went around talking about how it’s transmitted. And we walked the streets. We took the subway. I think that was the moment that I realized that I think I’m going to start changing my own lifestyle.
But I think it’s only in the last week have we really understood the magnitude of this. When you think of the things that we are being asked to do, the things we are doing right now, I don’t know that two and a half, three weeks ago, I would have said were possible. I led our newscasts off last night saying, “Virtually, it appears nothing is off the table right now.” Our lives have fundamentally changed. None of us imagined the story.
Most of us got into journalism because we wanted to make a difference, we want to have an impact, we wanted to be the first ones to know things and to share things with people. I don’t think our mission has ever been more important right now. Certainly what’s happening at the government level, at the medical level, is crucial. Our lives depend on it. So is the flow of information, and I’m proud to be a part of that, because I think a huge part of how we’re going to get through this is for us to be constantly asking the questions. And we have the same questions. We are literally in this boat together.
DEADLINE: Do you think misinformation has hindered the response — even the president’s own statements in how he treated this?
HOLT: Another thing I said to my staff, and they know this, because we do this every day: words matter. “Panic,” “worry,” “fear” — you name it. They’re not always the same. They don’t always mean the same thing. We’ve got to choose our words carefully.
I had a text the other day from someone close to me, and it started out with, ‘I don’t know if this is true, but,’ and it went on to describe something extreme that was supposedly going to happen and here’s the source. And I immediately spotted it as a rumor out there. But it got speed and there have been several rumors out there, and that’s why it’s so critical for us to come on every night. … Not just us — reputable news organizations, to just tell what we know and what we don’t know.
DEADLINE: What sort of things have you had to do to adapt to limited production capabilities because of social distancing?
HOLT: I have an open-door policy, but my door is closed right now. I am essentially in semi-isolation even here at 30 Rock. I work behind closed doors. I talk to most of my staff on the phone or over the computer. I walk down to the studio, and I take care of putting the mic and the audio equipment on. I put it on myself and power it up. It’s strange. I mean, most of the staff is not here. They are working from home, as they should be.
But it’s a weird adjustment because we’re a collaborative organization. We have meetings in the morning and meetings in the afternoon. We talk about stories. We look each other in the eye and pick people’s brains. We can’t do that now in the same way. We can certainly communicate, but we don’t have that close interaction. But you know that’s happening universally right now. I don’t know that it’s sunk in with us that this may be the way things are for a very long time. I think that’s probably the hardest part for a lot of people is coming to grips with that the changes that we’re seeing. You are not going to turn on the news tomorrow, and we’re going to say “Hey, never mind” or, “They figured it out.” We’d love to say that, but I think we’re realizing it’s not going to happen like that.
DEADLINE: On a personal level, how are you and your family dealing with the social distancing?
HOLT: Fortunately, one of my sons works in the building here. He works for the local NBC station. So I get to see him from time to time. My other son is working from home, like so many other people around the country. But we’re all staying close, and fortunately, we’re all well. I’ve got elderly parents who I worry about. And that’s why this is so personal, what we do. This isn’t just reporting the way we’ve come to know that this is, but this is deeply personal. As I said, we are all in this. We are all affected by this, and we are all impacted by it.
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