updated 4/26/2004 1:56:19 PM ET 2004-04-26T17:56:19

RTNDA/NAB Opening Session
Las Vegas
April 19, 2004

I’m still amazed my career has taken the turns it has. Never in a million years would I have imagined co-hosting a network morning show. But here I am, almost 30 years in the business exercising a new set of anchor muscles...and tackling the unique challenge of turning from war, terror and politics to popular culture, celebrity interviews and even how to prepare a Cornish game hen...often in the same half-hour.

By maintaining a regular presence on MSNBC in addition to my duties at TODAY, I have found myself in the best of two worlds. Hard news is where my roots are buried, but to also have a venue that allows me to show the real me, and have some fun is both rewarding and frankly welcome relief. The world we live in and the news we cover has never been heavier.

In the less than four years I’ve been at MSNBC our country has experienced an unprecedented terror attack, two wars, and a disputed Presidential election. Any one of them could have been biggest story of some ones career. Toss in the anthrax attack, the DC sniper case, and the loss of the Space shuttle and it has been a hell of news era we are living through.

I often ask myself, have we risen to the challenge?

We know we did on September 11th, 2001. For once we were able to drop the adjective...“dramatic” footage. There was no need to pump-up the obvious. America was glued to television news. We were relevant and we were vital.

Those people who tell you at dinner parties “I don’t watch TV”? They were watching. A nation full of questions, and we were giving them answers. Our darkest hours showed America at its finest in so many areas, and broadcast journalism was no exception.

This convention brings together a unique mix of experienced season professionals, as well as those hoping to get the attention of those seasoned professionals, and so my message today is aimed at both.

The events of the last few years have challenged the nation, but they have also challenged us to be better. To be more responsible. To be smarter. They also make it imperative for the experienced among us to raise the maturity level of our newsrooms. Not the chronological age of our staffs.. but the depth of knowledge.

A few weeks ago I was in our morning editorial meeting going over the days stories for my MSNBC program. We were discussing how to handle the, “Is Iraq another Vietnam? question”. I suddenly decided to ask my staff how many were alive when the U.S. exited Vietnam. Several kept their hands in their laps, while most of the others acknowledged being toddlers.

As part of our discussion I brought up the relevance of the Tet offensive...and at that point didn’t dare ask how many knew what I was talking about. That was, after all, 1968.

So, beyond proving that I am unquestionably getting old, it got me reflecting on the role of people like myself in the newsroom, and whether we are meeting our burden of sharing, educating and mentoring, rather than rolling our eyes when a young producer insist “Wings” was Paul McCartney’s first band.

The challenges of our time demand stories are told with perspective. History has never been more relevant for it may offer a glimpse as to where this country is headed. You can either get that perspective through experiencing events or being educated about them. Formally or informally.

I lost a good friend a few months ago. Jerry Nachman is a name that will generally spark sharp reaction from those who knew him. Jerry wore many hats, from GM and news director in CBS and NBC editor of the New York Post. He was also a news director of an all-news radio station in San Francisco. That’s where I met him.  Jerry hired me at the age of 20 to be a reporter and anchor. At the time my resume would have fit in a paragraph.

Jerry was my mentor. I was a reporter. But Jerry taught me what it meant: When I made a mistake I heard about it. And learned from it. I learned about the courts. I learned about the cops. I learned about framing a story. And the most valuable lesson he taught me was to take a dose of humility and ask for help, and ask the people around me to share their experience.

I was a 22-year-old kid when I started at WCBS-TV in New York, with virtually no television, only radio news experience. I survived only because I tapped the resources of the people around me. The camera crews, the desk people, the producers. They may have rolled their eyes behind my back when I asked them silly questions, but they knew I wanted to learn. And Jerry and the many others who took me under the wings weren’t afraid to come down on me when I screwed up. And boy there were some beauts!

Let me ask you this: How many times have we seen young rising stars crash in this biz because no one was mentoring them...correcting them? I ask all of you old-timers...are we nurturing, sharing our experience, offering correction as opposed to rejection?

With all due respect to J-school, there are some practicalities of what we do that can only come from experience. There’s a reason a rookie cop fresh out of the academy rides with an experienced officer before being put out on the beat alone.

Mentorship, and those willing to be mentored, are the keys to building the maturity level demanded of our newsrooms today. No one should be allowed to fail because no one took the time to set the new kid straight. Neither should someone fail because they entered this business with false expectations. Not a month goes by, someone in our organization, usually a page or intern will come to my office to ask me about how to begin an on-air career. It usually starts with a comment, “I want to be an anchor,” or “I want to be the next Katie Couric.” Unfortunately very few come to my office and say they want to be a reporter.

My first on-air job was actually as a disc-jockey at a country and western station. The only way I could land a full-time gig was if I was willing to report the news.

The first time I came running up to a police action in my mobile unit, packed with police scanners and a tape recorder and walkie-talkie I was hooked.

My friend Jerry put it to me this way: being a reporter is the highest calling. It is what we are and what we should be most proud of.

People ask me what was the most interesting story I ever covered, not the most interesting story I read. Being an anchor allows you access to report better and bigger stories and better interviews and be an influential voice in the editorial process.

The thing I love about anchoring on cable is I get to do the work of a reporter right from the anchor desk. Lots of interviews. Lots of breaking stories where we go scriptless sometimes for hours on end. At moments like that, every hostage siege I ever covered, every strife-ridden foreign country I’ve worked in, every trial and city council hearing I sat in on is an experience that I can immediately call upon to help viewers understand a story.

I’ve ad-libbed for our hours on plane crashes, police chases, fires, you name it...and can fill-in those blanks in the action with the relevant experience of having been there. Having covered that kind of situation before.

Why are they searching the freed hostage? Why are the firemen actually setting brush fires? Why did the policeman touch the trunk as he approached the driver of the suspect car? What can happen when a plane loses hydraulics? I didn’t learn it in college or a book. I learned it from the experience of being a reporter.

I conclude by simply reminding you, as I often remind myself, why we got in this business, why many of us said “I’d pay them” to work in the business. It’s because we love the exhilaration of being on top of the big story, knowing stuff before anyone else, and owning it. If you love the it enough to raise the bar, and help the next generation over that bar. If they succeed, our profession succeeds.

In this threatening world that Secretary Ridge will soon speak of, our audiences deserve nothing less.

Lester Holt anchors 'Lester Holt Live' and Weekend Today.


Discussion comments