Monday, April 28, 2003

MSNBC's iron man anchor earned
his stripes



By David Bauder
The Associated Press

SECAUCUS, N.J. - Now that the war is largely over, Lester Holt can get together again with his buddies to jam on loud rock songs in a grungy Manhattan rehearsal space.

A bass player, Holt loves the instrument's subtle part on "Stairway to Heaven."

Not quite your image of MSNBC's wartime iron man, eh?

Holt's graying temples and authoritative manner make him so much the quintessential anchorman that it's easy to forget there's a living, breathing human underneath.

Holt's star is on the rise at NBC News, even overshadowing NBC's top anchor-in-waiting, Brian Williams, during the war.

Holt worked regularly as MSNBC's chief war anchor from noon to 6 p.m., taking a short break and coming back from 9 p.m. to midnight. On some days, he'd sleep a few hours then sub for Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show at 7 a.m.

"You do suspect after a while that he has a twin brother," said Erik Sorenson, MSNBC's general manager.

A New York radio station even saluted Holt in song. "He's so smooth, he puts me in a trance," WPLJ-FM's Todd Pettengill wrote. "If you want my vote, you should watch Lester Holt."

Sorenson wouldn't put Holt on the air so much without a strong audience response. At MSNBC, which is happy for any kind of attention, Holt caught many eyes with the prime-time war buildup show, "Countdown: Iraq."

"Some anchors are accused of being robotic and detached," Sorenson said. "He seemed to strike the right balance between being empathetic to the situation he was covering and not wallowing in the emotion of it."

Holt, 44, is no stranger to anchoring. He spent 15 years as a top local news anchor in Chicago before a demotion led to a crossroads.

With offers from MSNBC and a local station in San Jose, Holt had the chance to go home - he grew up in the Bay area - or try a national news outlet. He moved east.

Only a week into his new job in July 2000, the Concorde crashed after takeoff in Paris, killing 113 people. Holt, who subscribes to Aviation Week and keeps a model B-1 bomber in his office, let people know of his interest in air travel and was quickly put on the air.

He's flattered and somewhat bemused by the attention he's getting now after two decades of work.

"I never believed the anchorman should be the know-it-all," Holt said. "And I try to communicate that to the audience. While I have some knowledge from my years of experience, what I want to do is walk you through this because we're all walking through this together."

When someone comments on his sense of calm on the air, Holt laughs. "It's fatigue," he said.

But he wasn't about to refuse work during the war.

"This is what we do," he said. "You're here for the big story. It would be like a fireman saying 'no' to a five-alarm fire because he doesn't want to work too hard. I don't feel like anybody's taken advantage of me. And I would feel bad if they weren't asking me to do all these hours."

Holt's emergence may have come at the expense - at least temporarily - of Williams, who is set to replace Tom Brokaw as NBC News' top anchor late next year.

The rap on Williams was he lacked the high-profile reporting assignments to lend substance to his role as an anchor. So he flew off to Kuwait and Iraq for the war.

It may not have been enough. Williams got stuck in the desert for a couple of days when the military helicopters he was traveling with were grounded. And while he was gone, Holt was on the air.

Holt is already cutting back. MSNBC is cutting costs by replacing his 11 p.m. newscast with a Hardball rerun. And Holt will eventually be replaced at 9 p.m. by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. Holt's regular anchor slot will be 4-6 p.m. on weekdays.

"Lester is a tremendous security blanket for NBC," Sorenson said. "He's sort of like the best sixth man in the NBA, which doesn't mean he can't be in the starting lineup. But he can play guard, forward and center."




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