Who is Lester Holt, just named permanent anchor of "NBC Nightly News?"
The obvious response to this is that you already know who Lester is.
He's been a reliable and steady presence at NBC since joining in 2000 after a long career in Chicago television. He has been "acting" anchor of "Nightly News" since February when Brian Williams was suspended for a war story embellishment. On Monday, he drops the "acting" part of the job title.StoryReport: Brian Williams doing 'Today' interviewStorySources: Williams off 'Nightly News,' on at NBCStoryWith Lester Holt absent, speculation rises
But a more considered response to "Who is Lester" might be: Not really sure.
That, in fact, may well be a testament to his professionalism and personality. In a business where "cult of personality" almost seems to gather around stars like an omnipresent halo -- or cloud, depending on that personality -- Holt has no cult at all. He's widely admired and liked inside NBC News -- almost certainly a factor behind the huge new role he is about to assume.
But of far greater consequence, he is widely respected. Holt has, among other things, what might be called adaptability -- an esteemed quality in TV news, which essentially means that when a tragedy happens on the other side of the world, he is on the first plane to get himself there. It's what also is called in TV news a "fireman" mentality and instinct, which requires an almost visceral reaction to the idea that NOT being at the scene of a breaking news story would be repugnant. Holt, over his 15-year run here, has rarely suffered that reaction:
NBC's own bio on Holt covers his reportorial globetrotting in two paragraphs, of necessity shortened for space. He reported on the Iraq war in 2003 from the Kuwaiti border, later moving in the troops; he reported from Lebanon in 2006 during the war between Israel and Hezbollah; he was on the ground in Haiti in 2010 immediately after the massive earthquake there; he covered the Arab spring in Cairo and the nuclear crisis in Japan in 2011.
Hurricane Katrina ... Gulf Oil spill ... Hurricane Rita ... the list goes on, but during some of these stories, Holt also co-anchored "Weekend Today" and "Nightly" and has been a major presence on "Dateline," which could be called TV's stealth news magazine. ("Dateline" may not accrue to it the plaudits that "60 Minutes" does, but of greater consequence, it accrues the viewers.)
Over these years, Holt has never -- once -- been the subject of a gossip item in the New York Post (save for a recent story that said his management team wanted the same salary as Brian Williams), never once had a fawning profile about him in the major glossies, which tend to consecrate stars. He's never built a profile off the air -- usually the sine qua non of news stars on the make seeking bigger salaries, roles or perhaps new jobs.
Maybe one reason for this is that Holt isn't what's deemed "good copy". He doesn't gossip about coworkers or -- like some famous TV news stars who will remain unnamed here -- provide off-the-record snark about his peers. He may well be ambitious, but he has hidden that aspect of his personality remarkably well.
Holt is even -- could this be? -- a little bland, and unlike Williams, he's probably almost congenitally incapable of handling a monologue on "Saturday Night Live."
He told Steve Johnson in a profile in the Chicago Tribune two years ago: "I always kind of bristle when people say, 'You're the hardest working man in television.' At the end of the day, I'm reading the news. I'm not digging ditches. I'm not fighting fires. It's a long day, and it's a lot of responsibility, and it can be a little bewildering sometimes with the schedule. But, you know, it's a job, and they pay me well to do a job."
The basics on Lester are this: A California native (Marin County) born in 1959. Went to Cal State in Sacramento, never graduated (like Williams and like Walter Cronkite). Also, like Williams, spent the bulk of his career at CBS as a local reporter; joined NBC in 2000 and became "Weekend Today" co-anchor after the death of David Bloom, then in 2007 was named anchor of the weekend edition of "Nightly." He's been "Dateline" anchor since 2011.
More facts: He's been married to Carol Hagen-Holt, a former flight attendant, for about 32 years and has two grown sons: Stefan, 28, also an anchor, and Cameron, 25, who recently wrapped a degree at Stanford. (Just last week, Holt wrote a loving tribute to both in Time Magazine.)
Then of course, there is this: Holt is African-American and will become the first solo black anchor of one of the major three evening newscasts in television history. It seems almost incidental to mention, except that it is not: An inescapable sense of both symbolism and transition feels attached to this promotion because it is.
Ed Bradley was long considered a viable candidate at CBS, but only would become a fill-in anchor on occasion. Max Robinson -- who like Holt was professionally allied to Chicago -- shared the anchor desk with Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds at ABC.
And while some may choose to believe that "anchor" is a diminished role, anyway -- in a news world dominated by the Internet and social media -- and that as a consequence the symbolism is thus diminished, that conventional piece of wisdom clearly escaped the notice of those at Comcast, NBCUniversal and hundreds of NBC stations. The company has been wracked over the Brian Williams trauma because "Nightly News" itself isn't just a symbol of the news division, but to an extent a symbol of television news itself -- as are "Evening News" and "World News Tonight."
In addition, "Nightly" remains a significant generator of both revenue and profit.
It is yet another mark of Holt's character that no one -- at NBC News especially -- expects that he would or could do anything to diminish the franchise he is now about to take charge of.