How Lester Holt went from Chicago TV to moderating Trump-Clinton debate

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Lester Holt will enter one of the most pressure-packed environments of his journalistic career on Monday when he referees the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

For the 57-year-old NBC anchor, it’s the first time moderating a presidential debate.

{mosads}And given the high stakes, both campaigns will be scrutinizing Holt closely to make sure he calls things down the middle.

The harsh criticism endured by NBC and “Today Show” anchor Matt Lauer when he moderated a forum featuring Trump and Clinton only raised the bar for Monday’s moderator.

Holt is keeping a low profile headed into the big event on Monday at Hofstra University in New York.

NBC declined a request to interview Holt, who hasn’t sat down with the press since being tapped as a debate moderator along with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

The California native is no stranger to pressure. But the kind of pressure he’ll be facing with potentially 100 million people watching will be a whole new level few in broadcast journalism ever feel.

The Clinton camp is calling on Holt to actively fact-check Trump, while the Republican presidential nominee says it’s not the job of a moderator to ask questions, follow-up questions and fact-check on the fly. Trump cites Candy Crowley in doing so.

Crowley — who has since retired from CNN — famously fact-checked former GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 by saying he was wrong to say that President Obama didn’t characterize the attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead as a terrorist attack. Crowley corrected him during the debate, changing the entire dynamic in the process.

Crowley would admit afterward that Romney was “right in the main” in his argument, but the damage was already done. 

David Shuster, a former reporter and anchor at MSNBC who once worked with Holt, said his former colleague will want to avoid Crowley’s example.

“He needs to avoid trying to do any real-time fact-checking of either candidate,” argues Shuster, who also once worked at Fox News and most recently at Al Jazeera America. “But if either candidate delivers a whopper, Lester needs to turn to the other candidate and say ‘Is that your understanding of ‘A, B, C?’

“The goal is not for Lester to play fact-checker,” Shuster adds, “but make sure the other candidate gets the opportunity to do so in real time.”

Jennefer Witter, CEO of the public relations firm Boreland Group in New York, says the moderator can improvise, but only when clearly warranted.

“Holt needs to listen to the candidates’ responses and delve deeper if they are vague, unclear or simply dodging the question,” says Witter. “He can go off-script and build questions out of the candidates’ own replies. This will provide more thoughtful answers or demonstrate areas of weakness.”

Noah Rothman, an assistant online editor at Commentary Magazine, says the cons outweigh the pros if Holt becomes too involved in the discussion. 

“There has been a lot of pressure on Holt this week to perform as a participant in this debate rather than the facilitator of it, and it would be a mistake if he succumbed to that pressure,” Rothman says. “If Trump were to make a knowingly misleading statement about his record and Holt intends to counter it, he’d benefit by avoiding a food fight when doing so.” 

Trump, who had said nothing but nice things about Holt in interviews, recently accused Holt of being a Democrat on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News.  

“By the way, Lester is a Democrat,” Trump said to O’Reilly. “Look, it’s a phony system. Lester is a Democrat. I mean, they are all Democrats, OK? It’s a very unfair system.”

Holt actually has been a registered Republican since 2003. 

In the same interview, Trump also said “he had respect for Lester” and that he was “a professional” but feared his media brethren were trying to “game the refs” to be tougher on him than Lauer.

“They’re trying to intimidate Lester,” he said. 

Holt became the anchor of “NBC Nightly News” after Brian Williams was suspended for lying about being fired upon in a helicopter during the Iraq War.

It was a low point for the Peacock Network, and at first a number of top names — including Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Katie Couric, Jake Tapper and Jorge Ramos — were bandied about as possible replacements.

But Holt, who immediately took the reins upon Williams’s suspension, ended up winning the job.

At the time, critics predicting he wouldn’t be the permanent replacement wrote that he simply wasn’t sexy enough for the job.

Williams yukked it up with David Letterman, slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon and made several appearances on “Saturday Night Live.”

Lester Holt? He was far too sober, far too much of an old-school journalist, to ever consider doing that. And ratings, the argument went, would suffer as a result.

Instead, Holt has grabbed more viewers than his competition at ABC and CBS while cultivating a strong reputation for calling it down the middle. 

Instead of shepherding the end of the 19-year run of “NBC Nightly News” as the most-watched evening news program, Holt has carried it forward. Since Holt took over in June 2015 permanently, “Nightly News” has enjoyed some of its highest numbers in a long time, while adding a 20th year to its streak.

Holt began his broadcast career right after President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 in New York, landing a job at a local CBS affiliate. A few years later, he would move to Chicago to begin a 14-year run on Chicago’s popular WBBM TV as a reporter and news anchor.

He was in his 40s when NBC News in New York came calling to sign him as a television reporter.

The first impression at 30 Rock was a good one, as the affable, unassuming Holt quickly was given his own program, “Lester Holt Live” on MSNBC while also doing work for “Today” and “Dateline.” 

Holt has his quirks.

He’s an accomplished bass guitar player who has performed with Earth, Wind and Fire, and attended Cal State Sacramento but did not graduate college. His favorite way to relax is to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco on his flight simulator; his No. 1 bucket list item is to run with the bulls in Pamplona; and he speaks fluent Italian. 

Stevie Wonder kicks off his workout playlist. 

Heading up to Monday night’s debate, you’ll hear the following at the top of most newscasts: 

“All eyes will be on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tonight as they prepare for what could be the biggest night of their lives…”

But that won’t quite be accurate. 

Many eyes will be on Lester Holt as well.  

Updated 4:10 p.m.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Presidential Debate

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