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Cronkite School Honors NBC’s Lester Holt with 36th Cronkite Award

November 4, 2019
Lester Holt1

Lester Holt was honored with the 36th annual Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism on Nov. 4, 2019 at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown. (Photo by Marcus Chormicle)

Lester Holt, the award-winning anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline NBC,” accepted the 2019 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism today from Arizona State University.

Calling the Cronkite award an honor, Holt said these times demand clarity and fearlessness, and reporting that exposes and cuts through assaults on the truth.

“Rather than lick our wounds, this is journalism’s time to shine, to shine a light in dark places as we never have before, and to hold individuals and institutions of power accountable,” Holt told a crowd of more than 1,000 media, business and community leaders, Cronkite School supporters and students. “That’s what we do. That is our calling. That is what we will do.”

ASU Provost Mark Searle presented Holt with the 36th annual award, given by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The award recognizes distinguished journalists who embody the values of the school’s namesake.

When accepting the award, Holt noted that it is common at such gatherings to bemoan the current assault on journalism, a time when “low blows from the highest places are a threat to not only the First Amendment — a fundamental pillar of our democracy — but to journalism around the world.”

But this also is an important moment for American journalism, he said.

“Yeah, we’re getting knocked around a little bit, called ‘enemies of the people’,’’ Holt said. “But no one is preventing us from doing our jobs, so that’s what we need to do.”

Holt was joined by NBC News colleagues; his wife, Carol; and his oldest brother, Mike, and his wife, Susan, who live in the Valley.

Also in attendance were Chip Cronkite and Walt Cronkite, the son and grandson of Cronkite. Special guests included members of the Howard family and executives of the Scripps Howard Foundation, who through their support made possible the Cronkite School’s newest program – the national Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

Earlier in the day, Holt discussed his unconventional career path with more than 300 Cronkite students who filled the school’s First Amendment Forum, taking time to answer questions from students who are close to entering the field. During the hour-long discussion, led by Cronkite student Jennifer Alvarez, Holt addressed the complexities of the current and evolving media landscape, lauded the demand for the profession and offered advice to future journalists.

Lester Holt - Cronkite News

Lester Holt toured the Cronkite School and visited reporters in the Cronkite News newsroom. (Photo by Ellen O'Brien)

“The stories of the day are naturally divisive,” Holt said. “We have to give people perspective on why stuff matters. We have to go in eyes wide open, recognizing that a lot of audiences right now will hear what they want to hear and will gravitate sometimes to places that will confirm their world view.”

He urged students to bring compassion to their work, saying it is a critical element of journalism that is often overlooked.

“We are journalists, but we are also people,” Holt said. “It’s not an editorial position to feel sad about someone’s loss. That’s a human reaction. It’s okay to inject some of that into a story. These are human stories first and news stories second.”

Other Cronkite Award recipients include TV news anchors Diane Sawyer, Tom Brokaw, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill; newspaper journalists Ben Bradlee, Helen Thomas and Bob Woodward; and media executives Katharine Graham, Al Neuharth and William Paley.

Holt has anchored the flagship NBC broadcast since 2015, following eight years as anchor of the newscast’s weekend edition and 12 years as co-anchor of “Weekend TODAY.” He also leads NBC’s special reports, major breaking news and primetime political coverage and has served as principal anchor of “Dateline NBC” since 2011.

His work has been recognized with multiple Emmy Awards, a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award. In 2016, he was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists.

Holt has covered more than a dozen natural disasters, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and has covered every Olympics on the ground since the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan called Holt “an inspiration to our students, and to all of us.”

“I want to simply say how excited all of us at the Cronkite School are to have Lester Holt here with us today to celebrate his great career and the journalistic values and principles he represents,” Callahan said, adding, “Those Cronkite values and principles are also on display every day at our school, through the extraordinary students who will be the next generation of great journalists in the tradition of Holt and Cronkite.”

Holt during his remarks recalled watching as a child as Cronkite anchored the big stories from the funeral of President John F. Kennedy to Vietnam, from race riots to “the incredible journey we know as Apollo 11.”

Holt told the story of when he was a young radio reporter years later and he “couldn’t wipe the smile off his face” that day in 1980 during a visit to CBS network headquarters in New York. He came face to face with Walter Cronkite as he walked out of the studio and shook his hand.

“At that moment I found Mr. Cronkite as more than a figure to admire, but rather someone whose career and approach to news I someday hoped to follow,” Holt said. “And you know the rest of this story. That kid today anchors a national evening news program of his own, and now stands before you honored with an award named for Walter Cronkite.”

These are different times than when Walter Cronkite delivered the news, and there will never be anyone quite like him, Holt added.

“But his authenticity, his attention to detail, calm demeanor – and this is really important – his respect for the viewer are values and skills that all of us in front of the camera should aspire,” he said. “And as Walter himself would likely conclude, ‘that’s the way it is.’”

Watch Holt's full speech: