Ever since Brian Williams lied his way out of his job as NBC Nightly News weekday anchor 17 months ago, people have been lavishing praise on his replacement, Lester Holt. Lester is a professional. He's a serious news reporter. He's a real journalist, they say. Many people, including myself, hoped that Lester was the Moses who would finally lead NBC News out of the Brian Williams desert and return the organization to its former place of prominence and journalistic respectability, as exemplified by the legendary journalist/anchors Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor. Maybe Lester would take the news seriously. Maybe he would break with recent tradition and devote the entire broadcast to real news. Maybe he would stop padding Nightly News with idiotic drivel. Maybe...maybe...maybe...
Before taking over for Brian, Lester Holt was an adequate weekend anchor in an undemanding and low-pressure environment. He flew under the radar. But unfortunately, under the spotlight of five-day-a-week scrutiny, Lester has shown that he's just Brian Williams without the rampant egotistical narcissism. It's not breaking news to report that Brian Williams had the biggest ego on TV (bigger, even, than Brian's fellow NBC host Donald Trump). Whenever possible (and as anchor, it was usually possible), Brian began news stories with phrases such as "If you're like me..." or "For those of us..." (the latter phrase was always followed by a self-congratulatory statement like "...who love dogs...," "...are Supreme Court buffs...," "...who played high school football" or "...who are die-hard New York Giants fans..."). Lester opts for the more humble "So many" (as in "...the credit cards so many use..." or "...the cars so many drive..."). Humility aside, Lester is just the latest snake oil salesman to stand in front of the NBC cameras at 6:30 PM Monday through Friday (holidays excluded) and use his carnival barker's bag of tricks to keep people tuned in to his broadcast. Unlike Brian, Lester doesn't make Nightly News about himself. But like Brian, Lester's Nightly News isn't really about news, either. Lester's primary job isn't to report important events–it's to maximize ratings so the NBC News sales department can charge the highest possible ad rates for Nightly News commercials (and also so that the NBC prime time lineup can have the best possible lead-in). And like his predecessor, Lester does not allow ethics to stand in the way of ratings. He will say practically anything to keep viewers watching. He frequently uses phrases like "late word," "late details" and "late developments" to describe stories that had already been reported by other news organizations 12 or more hours before Nightly News came on the air. He regularly uses decidedly non-news terms like "shocking," "stunning," "amazing," "incredible," "breathtaking," "chilling," "spectacular," "astounding," "remarkable," "heartwarming," "inspiring" and "jaw-dropping" to titillate viewers and hard-sell the news–or, more specifically, the twaddle that he passes off as news. By the way, those are the same words regularly used by Mario Lopez, the host of "Extra," the show that follows NBC Nightly News in many markets and the show from which Nightly News has become virtually indistinguishable. Maybe NBC should just merge the two shows and call the new program "NBC Nightly News Extra With Lester and Mario." Just think of how much fun that show would be.
Lester always begins Nightly News with a 45-to-50 second intro in which he teases the 5 or 6 stories that are most likely to excite viewers and keep them from changing the channel. It's no different than when a drama series begins with teases of that night's sauciest moments (without actually giving anything away), an age-old TV ploy (previously used for radio dramas and movie serials) designed to keep asses in the seats. But what Lester doesn't tell us is often as important as what he does tell us. On the June 23, 2016 Nightly News, this was the third story Lester teased at the top of the broadcast: "Movie theater hostage crisis! A masked gunman holding dozens! Chaos and panic! Fears of another mass attack as police storm the cinema!"
On the August 18, 2015 broadcast, Lester teased a story about a bombing: "Manhunt for a bomber! Authorities say this is the killer caught on camera as a new explosion rocks a major tourist city and a mystery deepens!" However, Lester waited five minutes before telling us that the bombing was in Bangkok. (It goes without saying that Lester's use of the word "authorities" was meant to imply "U.S. authorities.")
So Lester and his producers found a loophole, a crafty way to keep people tuned in and boost ratings: Don't tell the viewers that the story being teased happened outside the U.S. Which is the same thing as tricking them into thinking it happened inside the U.S. Which, by any standard, is lying. But Lester doesn't care. If bamboozling the viewers will keep them from changing the channel and give him bigger ratings, he's all for it. Yes, Lester Holt is a professional. He's a serious news reporter. He's a real journalist.