Lester Holt sure knows how to make news seem exciting. He does that by introducing a story on the newscast he anchors, NBC’s “Nightly News,” as “breaking news.” But often the story has already been broken, even shattered.
“Breaking news tonight,” Holt began his newscast on Jan. 8, 2016, “officer ambushed. Horrifying images, a gunman firing 11 shots at a Philadelphia cop in his patrol car, the officer firing back, hitting the suspect, who police say pledged allegiance to Isis.” Breaking news? Tonight? In fact, the policeman was shot shortly before midnight the previous night. And the shooter was caught in a few minutes. So all the action took place about 18 hours before Holt called it breaking news tonight. In this sampling of Holt’s scripts, we see how Holt shifts time to make stories seem far fresher than they really are—apparently a ploy to hook viewers.
“Breaking news tonight,” he started off on Dec. 4, “the pledge of allegiance to ISIS. The shocking message from the female attacker in San Bernardino, posted on Facebook, right as the massacre began.” Breaking news? Far from it. Eight hours before Holt’s newscast, at 10:33 a.m. ET, a CNN anchor said, “We have breaking news….” She went on to report that investigators had found a connection to ISIS. Then a CNN reporter told of the female attacker’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS. Two of Holt’s colleagues—Pete Williams and Tom Winter—provided that news to NBC at 10:58 a.m., seven and a half hours before Holt delivered his opening, which was false.
“Breaking now,” Holt said on Dec. 11, “flames erupt at a California mosque.” Now? The Riverside fire department said the fire was reported to them at 3:09 p.m. ET, and the department said the fire was contained at 3:49 p.m. ET. That means the fire broke out three and a half hours before Holt said the fire was breaking out now. Breaking? Gimme a break.
After terrorist bombings in Lebanon on Nov. 12, Holt said they had occurred “late today.” But The Associated Press had moved the story from Beirut at 11:27 a.m. ET—seven hours before Holt went on the air. What’s also disturbing: at least some members of the “Nightly News” crew would be aware of those deceptions.
“There is late word tonight,” Holt said on Oct. 28, “the ongoing refugee crisis overseas has produced yet another tragedy. A boat packed with refugees struggling to reach Europe capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos. More than 240 people were rescued from the frigid waters.” Late word tonight? The AP had tweeted, “BREAKING: Coast Guard rescues 242 people after boat capsizes near Lesbos.” The AP tweet went out at 2:12 p.m. ET, more than four hours before Holt said “late word tonight.”
Holt has apparently broken new ground and introduced a story—indeed a big one (the terrorists’ rampage in Paris on Nov. 13)—as major breaking news. Major is one of his favorite words. Isn’t almost all news on a network evening newscast major or at least majorish? He’s also fond of those tabloid faves bombshell and firestorm.
Then there’s the story of the suicide vest found in a Paris suburb. Holt told his audience that night (Nov. 23), “Another suicide vest has been found outside Paris tonight.” Tonight? The AP reported the discovery of that vest at 1:25 p.m. ET—five hours before Holt said the vest was found tonight. NBC itself had posted that news truthfully— at 3:51 p.m. ET.
On Oct. 1, Holt said: “Tonight, breaking news on two major fronts: massacre on campus. A mass shooting at an Oregon college. Police rushing to the scene, engaging the gunman in a shootout, the death toll in double digits, many others injured. Tonight, we’re live from the scene in this still-developing tragedy.” Breaking news? Wikipedia says the first 9-1-1 call at Umpqua Community College was made at 1:38 p.m. ET. Within 36 minutes, according to KOIN 6 in Portland, Oregon, all nine victims were dead, as was the gunman. So by 2:15 p.m. ET, more than four hours before Holt went on the air, the news was no longer breaking, except in Holt’s script.
Nouns are the bones that give a sentence body. But verbs are the muscles that make it go. If your first or second sentence lacks a vigorous verb, your script will lack go-power. Yet Holt seems to prefer participles. But they don’t have the punch that verbs do. Participles, such as rushing and engaging, don’t do the job. Holt’s saying police rushing to the scene suggests that police are rushing to the scene even as he speaks. And his then saying engaging the gunman in a shootout strengthens that impression.
Even when someone substitutes for Holt, fabrications persist. On Dec. 30, Kate Snow, subbing for Holt, said: “Tonight, breaking news. Bill Cosby charged. The once beloved star booked and arraigned for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting a woman. The first criminal charge amid the dozens of accusations of misconduct.” Breaking news, as she said? No. Not even close. At 11:47 a.m., the AP tweeted, “BREAKING: Bill Cosby arraigned on sex assault charge….” Even so, more than six and a half hours later, Snow called the story breaking. Breaking, my foot, leg and arm.
Newsies need to keep in mind the Latin maxim “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus”—“False in one thing, false in everything.” It’s a common-law principle that a witness who testifies falsely about one matter is not believable in testifying about other matters.
But let’s not call Holt a liar or falsifier. He seems like a good guy. So let’s just say he’s careless with the truth.
© Mervin Block 2016
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The Merv Block bookshelf on broadcast newswriting.
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“Writing Broadcast News” and “Broadcast Newswriting: The RTDNA Reference Guide”
“Rewriting Network News” and “Writing News for TV and Radio”
All four of Block’s books about newswriting: $121—a saving of $30.
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