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Lester Holt on breaking network nightly news’ race barrier

NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt accepts an award from DePaul University's Center for Integrity and Excellence in Journalism at the Union League Club on Thursday, April 20, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It’s been nearly two years since Lester Holt ascended to the anchor’s chair at “NBC Nightly News,” breaking a race barrier as the first black solo anchor of a weekday network nightly newscast.

Holt, who’d spent the largest chunk of his career in Chicago before joining the network in 2000, was handed the helm of the show watched nightly by nearly 8 million viewers after longtime anchor Brian Williams was re-assigned over lapses in judgment.

A scandal wasn’t the way Holt — who’d anchored “NBC Nightly News” weekend editions for eight years, anchored “Dateline NBC” for 5 1/2 years and co-anchored the “Weekend Today” show for 12 years — would have wanted that June 2015 promotion to come.

“It’s not like there was an ‘African-Americans need not apply’ sign. But there are only three of these network jobs, and I didn’t really think the opportunity would come my way, just because of timing and age, and those sorts of things,” he said.

So it took a while for the historical significance to sink in, Holt said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. He was in town recently to accept the Distinguished Journalist Award from DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence.

“There were a lot of emotions over the circumstances of how I became nightly anchor. Things happened very rapidly, and suddenly, I found myself in this position,” he said before a luncheon at the Union League Club attended by seemingly every TV journalist in Chicago. He’d spent 14 years — 1986 to 2000 — as a reporter/anchor with CBS2 here.

“People have always held these three evening news anchor positions in a pretty high place, and I was still going through this like, ‘You sure you got the right guy? This wasn’t a mistake?’ So there was a lot of adjustment. It was kind of a delayed reaction to understanding the importance,” Holt said.

“It was with further reflection, and with people asking me about it, that I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s a big deal,'” he said. “I always remember the story my mother likes to tell, which is, I might have been 4- or 5-years-old, and I asked her why there were no colored people on TV. She remembers that. Then fast forward. So I’m definitely struck by the history and the impact. I’ve always said that kids, people, should be able to turn on the TV and see someone that looks like themselves or somebody they know.”

Reflecting on his 35-year broadcasting career, Holt said the time he spent in Chicago prepared him for the respected chair at NBC’s Studio 3B at 30 Rockefeller Center.

Holt had been hired at CBS2 in 1986, after the station’s demotion of its only black weekday anchor, Harry Porterfield, sparked a 10-month viewer boycott led by Operation PUSH. It ended after CBS signed a covenant with PUSH that included the return of a black weekday anchor. CBS hired its first black vice president and general manager, Jonathan Rogers — who in 1990 became the first black president of a television division at any network — and Rogers recruited Holt from the CBS affiliate in New York.

“To be honest, Chicago was challenging at first,” Holt recalls. “My good friend Jonathan knew me in New York — I was anchoring weekends at CBS there — and he tapped me for the job. I was 27, and I didn’t quite know what I was walking into. There was that adjustment of, ‘Wait a minute. Why am I here? And how does a white audience perceive me?’ But Chicago embraced me, and I embraced Chicago back. I learned a lot about television journalism here. And a lot of what I learned here about anchors who report, and are leaders in their newsrooms, formed who I am today.”

Holt lives in New York City with his wife of 34 years, Carol Hagen. He is the father of two sons, Cameron and Stefan, the latter of whom has followed in his footsteps. After five years as morning news anchor at NBC5 Chicago, Stefan Holt left last year to anchor at the NBC affiliate in New York. And with Stefan and wife Morgan expecting a baby boy in September, Holt will soon be a grandfather.

NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt returned to Chicago, where he spent 14 years as a reporter/anchor, to accept an award from DePaul University’s Center for Integrity and Excellence in Journalism at the Union League Club on Thursday, April 20, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The senior Holt has been lauded for his coverage of some of the most focal moments in history. In 2016, he was the first black journalist to moderate a presidential debate in nearly a quarter century, presiding over the debate between now-President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — the most-watched in U.S. history. But Holt says he actually stumbled into this storied career.

“Journalism kind of chose me. I wanted to do broadcasting. My first break was as a disc jockey at a Sacramento Country & Western radio station, but that’s another story. At the time, I was interning at a TV station. I was in high school, so it wasn’t really an official internship, I just hung around,” Holt said.

“The idea was that I really wanted to be in broadcasting as a D.J. I was doing weekends at the station, and when I started college, they said, ‘We’ll give you a full-time job, but we need someone to go out and do news stories.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try it.’ They gave me a Jeep Cherokee, put police and fire scanners and a two-way radio in it, and I’m chasing fires and crimes and city council meetings, and I fell in love with it.”

Holt was born in Marin County, Cal., the youngest of four children of Lester Don Holt, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and June Holt, who worked for a regional planning agency. “I was an Air Force kid, so I lived mainly on bases in California, though we did spend four years in Alaska,” he said. “But I kind of claim as a hometown, Sacramento, Cal. That’s where my parents retired, and where we kind of set down roots.”

His mother is Jamaican, his father of West African and Scottish heritage. His wife is white, his children bi-racial. So the anchor who earned his promotion at a time when race was blowing up in this country has a unique perspective on the issue. The month he started, America saw the hate crime of the Emanuel A.M.E. church massacre, then President Barack Obama use the “n-word” to try to impress upon America the impact of racism.

“The legacy of America is still fresh and young, and I think sometimes we forget this is a long journey. Being an African-American anchor, or an African-American president, those are important milestones along the way. But some of these things are deeply ingrained,” Holt said.

“We go through periods where people are more vocal about their racial feelings, which makes you think they’ve been there all along, and different things bring them out. I don’t think we accept the fact that race is really, really, really hard,” Holt added. “I don’t think we’ll ever be color-blind, but I do think each generation will crack that door open a little wider. I’m a glass half-full person. I feel confident we’ll always find our compass. I’m hoping we’ll get to a point where we don’t have to make a big deal about firsts anymore, where it’ll just be something very natural.”