“Before we go: as of tonight this program has a new name and, I’m honored to say, a new anchor,” Lester Holt said at the end of his first broadcast as official anchor of NBC Nightly News. Late last week, NBC announced longtime anchor Brian Williams, suspended in February after making a bogus on-air claim about an experience covering the Iraq War, would be re-assigned to MSNBC and Holt, who’d been filling in since Williams left the anchor desk, would get the job on a permanent basis starting tonight.
“Your loyalty and viewership during a difficult time has been appreciated by all of us on this program,” Holt told viewers at the end of tonight’s broadcast. “And I want to express my sincere thanks to my friend and colleague Brian Williams for his kind words of support. We hope to see all of you each and every night.”
Lester Holt made history tonight in his debut, becoming the first black journalist to solo anchor a nightly news broadcast. The significance of the occasion was not lost on Holt, who this morning told the Today show on-air gang that, despite the fact he’s been anchoring Nightly News since early February, “last night I found myself laying clothes out like it was the first day of school,” including a “brand new tie.”
It was a particularly potent day for Holt to be debuting; the nation is engaged in debate over the country’s racial divide following last week’s murder of nine black bible-study participants by a young white man at an historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the day’s events Holt covered was this afternoon’s news conference in which that state’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley called on the state legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital, which some pundits believe catapulted her to the top of several GOP White House hopefuls’ running-mate lists.
“Tonight the flag fury explodes in South Carolina. And, a dramatic turn late today from the Governor. This, as president Obama stuns many by using the N-word in a frank discussion about racism in America,” Holt said in opening his newscast, referencing the country’s first black president having used the slur this morning in a podcast to draw attention to the racial divide that still exists in this country. (Obama also announced today he would travel to Charleston this week to attend funeral services and deliver the eulogy for one of the shooting victims: state senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney.)
Holt’s debut broadcast also included a report on Taylor Swift’s victory over Apple in re royalties, an update on the search for prison escapees David Sweat and Richard Matt, a storm in the Midwest potentially endangering as many as 40 million people, an alleged ISIS plot by a North Carolina resident, and news that General Mills will dump the colors blue and green from its Trix cereal as it removes artificial colors and flavors, among other reports.
Holt’s debut numbers will be scrutinized tomorrow morning but he’s unlikely to draw record crowds despite the historic nature of tonight’s broadcast, since viewers have been watching him anchor Nightly News for about four months now.
Regardless of audience size, Holt, who joined NBC in 2000 as an anchor on MSNBC, tonight became the first African American to solo anchor a nightly news broadcast; Max Robinson, the country’s first black evening news anchor, co-anchored ABC World News Tonight from Chicago as part of an awkward three-anchor format in the late 70’s/early 80’s that also included Frank Reynolds in New York, and Peter Jennings in London.
NBC’s announcement it was suspending Williams, and last week’s re-assignment, brought on eczema of news reports about the end of the larger-than-life celebrity evening news anchor who doesn’t just report the news, but is the news (a mindset Williams last week confessed had led him to tell “inaccurate” stories about his work so as to seem brighter and better than competitors). That point might be argued by reporters who have described ABC’s David Muir as the Brad Pitt of evening news anchors, and those who have declared Muir one of 2014’s Sexiest Men Alive, for instance. Former ABC News president David Westin had warned about the dangerous trend by TV networks to turn anchors into celebrities and the focus of the news back when Williams first was suspended, acknowledging it was going on when he ran that network’s news division.
In naming Holt to the newscast, NBC mirrors a move made, albeit temporarily, by CBS when it named Bob Schieffer to host its newscast about a decade ago. Schieffer, who’d anchored the Saturday edition of CBS Evening News for a couple decades, took over as anchor of the newscast when the network parted ways, acrimoniously, with Dan Rather. He only was an interim anchor, until August 2006 — during which time the newscast’s ratings jumped.
NBC’s move also may mirror, in some regards, ABC’s decision about a year ago to give Muir its evening newscast while retaining George Stephanopoulos as one of the co-anchors of its cash-cow Good Morning America. Stephanopoulos got named chief anchor at ABC News and takes over as the face of its coverage of major breaking news events. Similarly NBC News said Williams, who will be assigned to MSNBC when he returns in mid-August, also will serve as a “breaking news anchor for NBC News live special reports when Holt is not available,” without explaining in detail how that will work.
“As you guys kinda know, all this stuff gets to be too much for me,” Holt this morning told Today show on air-ers. “I can’t wait to get past today. But I did promise myself I’m going to savor it, I’m going to savor the day – and then it’s back to work.”