How Lester Holt Gives News a Jolt

Lester Holt knows how to make news newsier. The anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News” does that by saying a story happened tonight—even when it didn’t. Or saying it’s breaking now—even though it isn’t. When Holt says that, he does make the news newsier—but also untruesier. News scripts are expected to tell the truth and nothing but. Anchors, too.

Holt said on his 6:30 p.m. ET newscast on May 1: “Breaking news tonight from Baltimore. Six police officers charged as the death of Freddie Gray is ruled a homicide.” In truth, that news broke more than ten hours before Holt called it “breaking.” WBUR-FM in Boston posted the news at 8:18 a.m. The station reported that the death of Freddie Gray had been ruled a homicide. Also, the station reported the placing of charges against six police officers. The Associated Press moved that story at 9:59 a.m.—eight and a half hours before Holt said the news was breaking.

On May 7, Holt told his audience: “There are stunning new revelations about that terrorist attack at an anti- Islamist event in Texas. The F-B-I director revealing tonight that the feds sent a bulletin to local police warning them about one of the men who would open fire just hours later….” In fact, the FBI director had met with reporters early that afternoon. “Revealing tonight”? Four hours before Holt reported that the director said the feds had notified the police, the AP moved a story at 2:25 p.m. on the director’s meeting with reporters. The AP quoted the director as saying the F-B-I had notified police of a possible attack. Which is what Holt reported four hours later.

Another day, another misrepresentation: On Feb. 24, Holt said, “Word from the Justice Department tonight that George Zimmerman will not face federal charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin….” Word tonight? The AP had reported that news in a tweet at 10:57 a.m.—seven and a half hours earlier.

“In Oklahoma,” Holt said on April 23, “new revelations tonight about the training a reserve deputy received before he says he mistakenly shot and killed a man.” New? Not exactly. CBS News reported—at 6:46 p.m., the previous night—that six years earlier, the sheriff’s office investigated the deputy, and the reviewers concluded his training was questionable. I was taught not to use”revelation” unless referring to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Instead, I use “disclosure” (or “disclose”).

On May 11, Holt said, “The White House is hitting back hard tonight against an explosive new report that accuses the Obama administration of not being totally truthful about the U-S military raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.” The White House had hit back hard before lunch. CNN ran a story at 11:06 a.m.: “The White House is dismissing as ‘baseless’ a controversial report alleging President Barak Obama’s administration lied about the circumstances surrounding the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.” CNN quoted a White House spokesman as saying, “There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one.” So the White House “hit back hard” a long time before that night.

On May 5, Holt said, “One of the nation’s biggest banks is under fire tonight.” Los Angeles had filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo the day before.

On May 13, at 10:06 a.m., a newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts, The Patriot Ledger, posted a story about a man who accidentally left his year-old baby in his car and took a train into Boston. The next night, 32 hours later, Holt said, “Tonight we are hearing a panicked call for help from a father in Massachusetts realizing he did what could be considered every parent’s worst nightmare.”

On May 12, Holt said, “Back here at home, a major development tonight in a deadly officer-involved shooting in Wisconsin….” But almost two and a half hours earlier, CNN ran a story reporting that the police officer in the case would not be charged. Deadly means causing or able to cause death; the victim in Wisconsin was shot dead, so the script should have used fatal. Officer-involved sounds like police-reporter jargon. Officer-involved is awkward and not conversational, as broadcast copy is supposed to be. Back here at home? Whose home? Where? I, for one, don’t live in Wisconsin.

Major is one of Holt’s major words. So are revelation, massive, and tonight. His favorite expressions include “There’s a lot to tell you about tonight,” “A lot of moving parts,” and “You won’t believe.” Holt is right about that. As for his “breaking news,” “breaking news,” “breaking news”—gimme a break.

© Mervin Block 2015