Anchors

Uncensored

David Muir, Lester Holt, and Scott Pelley put competition aside to assess the evening news in the era of Trump

Story by

Brian Steinberg

Photographs by

Dylan Coulter

It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality."

That sentence wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary on a random Twitter feed or from the mouth of one of the nation’s late-night comics pointing out the chaos generated by the whirling dervish that is the White House in 2017. But because those were the words chosen by “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley to open his newscast last week, they made headlines. Characterizing Pelley’s statement as “highly unusual,” PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley devoted a column in Time magazine to a broadcast “the likes of which I have never seen on network news.”

Pelley rejects the notion that he was overly aggressive. “No, I don’t think we were being too hard at all, it was just empirically true,” he tells Variety. “The president had said a number of things that day that were false. I think it’s incumbent upon us — all of us — to help our audience sort out fact from fiction. We haven’t had a White House or a president like this before, and we’re all still trying to figure out how to cover it every day.”

Pelley’s salvo comes as those in the TV news business see the supercharged news cycle as an opportunity to renew the relevance of the three network anchors, stalwarts of a tradition that no longer generates the viewership it did in the days of Walter Cronkite or even Tom Brokaw. People now work later and can’t get home in time to tune in at 6:30 p.m. News junkies get their fill of headlines every minute simply by gazing into the tiny screens of their smartphones. And those who do tune in may be looking for an ever more partisan spin — witness the rise of Fox News Channel.

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The network anchors explain why the evening news matters more than ever.

Scott Pelley defends his description of Trump statements being "divorced from reality."

Evening news anchors reveal the questions they want to see Trump answer.

Evening news anchors explain how they're rising to the challenge of the Trump era.

The network anchors explain why the evening news matters more than ever.

Scott Pelley defends his description of Trump statements being "divorced from reality."

Evening news anchors reveal the questions they want to see Trump answer.

Evening news anchors explain how they're rising to the challenge of the Trump era.

Yet with the days of “Uncle Walter” slipping more deeply into the past, there’s still a glimmer of hope for network news. Though fewer people are watching the evening newscasts than did in, say, 1976, more are tuning in to “NBC Nightly News,” ABC’s “World News Tonight,” and “CBS Evening News” now than in 2008. The three broadcasts lured an average of 23.7 million people in 2016, according to Nielsen — an impressive total in an era of ever-more splintered audiences.

Conditions seem appealing enough that Vice Media last year launched a five-day-a-week newscast on HBO, and PBS in 2013 debuted a weekend edition of its “NewsHour.” Viewership for the latter, says Neal Shapiro, a former NBC News president who is CEO of WNET, the PBS station that launched the weekend effort, “is growing even more than I thought it would.”

At a time when President Trump rails against the “dishonest” media, and “fake news” labels make consumers wary of the facts that do come their way, the venerable evening newscasts stand apart.

“It plays across the country, not just in the ivory tower, but in bars and in working class homes,” says Brokaw, who anchored “NBC Nightly News” from 1982 to 2004.

Dressed in the tradition and trust of their decades on the air, the network anchors’ broadcasts have an imprimatur of authority — unlike the barrage of tweets and links that get circulated throughout 
the day. Though the tone and tenor of each of their shows is different, ABC’s David Muir, NBC’s Lester Holt, and CBS’ Pelley believe they can all be that voice of reason 
that many in America think is sorely needed right now.

Success is not guaranteed. The three newscasts overall shed viewers in 2016 — down .64% in total viewership from 2015 and down 2.72% in adults 25-54 — a troubling sign for an election year, when news junkies historically have flocked to their sets. (Fox News Channel, CNN, and MSNBC saw double-digit viewership increases across the board during this period.)

“There are significant issues ahead,” says Julia Wallace, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. “Young people are unplugging.”

The broadcasts’ tell-it-like-it-is quality — there’s no time in a 23-minute show for shouting surrogates or talking-point memos — could help them, despite viewer migration caused by technology.

“There is maybe a ritual to it, an ingrained thing, and a trust,” says Brian Hughes, senior vice president of audience analysis at Magna Global, the media investment firm. “That may help it weather the storm a little better.”

The anchors sense they are bearing witness to history at an opportune moment. “Our responsibility is greater than ever, given this news cycle,” notes Muir.

Holt adds that the networks shouldn’t shrink from the task at hand. “We don’t have to be afraid that maybe they won’t like us or they will criticize us. They’ve already done that,” he says. “News isn’t 
supposed to make you feel good. Some- times we are going to report things that are going to show something that’s going to be exposed. Sometimes we are going to tell a story that’s going to chill you, or challenge everything you thought to be true, or make you want to throw something at the TV.”

"My duty walking into that White House was to ask the questions that people at home want asked."

David Muir

Age
43

Twitter followers
575K

In the anchor chair since
September 2014

Early Job
anchor and reporter at WTVH in Syracuse, New York

David Muir has roughly 45 minutes to get rid of just one minute.
In a narrow editing bay in ABC’s New York headquarters in the first week in February, Muir, along with a producer and an editor, works to pare down a segment about a Holocaust survivor making suits in America. The report — slated to be one of the signature “Made in America” segments that cap off the broadcast — is more than three minutes long, and the trio needs to lop off about 60 seconds to get it on the show, which will start in less than an hour. Muir tells his colleagues to “clip” some stray scenes and remove a “half beat” of material, taking care not to delete any details of the subject’s life story.

With just four minutes left before airtime, Muir and “World News Tonight” executive producer Almin Karamehmedovic race up a flight of stairs and down a long hallway to get settled. Muir is wearing a jacket, tie, and jeans — his typical uniform, he says.

In an era in which splintered audiences have become the norm, the three evening newscasts have more freedom than ever to go their own way. Covering the political 
scene remains paramount for “Nightly,” says Holt, but so are reports on health, technology, and innovation. CBS has focused more heavily on foreign affairs and devotes long segments — virtually unheard of in today’s sound-bite culture — to investigative stories.

Executives at rival outlets sometimes poke fun at “World News Tonight” — it offers a flashier presentation than its rivals and does more with weather reports — but they cannot dismiss the fact that it has grown its audience. NBC continues to dominate in the most important measure, the audience between the ages of 25 and 54 that advertisers covet, but ABC’s “World News” is season-to-date a hair away from the lead in overall viewers — and it beat NBC by that measure at various periods of time last year. Season-to-date as of the week of Jan. 30, NBC remains in the lead in the key ad demographic and total viewership, but ABC has given it a run in the latter category, gaining about 9% since Muir’s first week in the chair. The margin between the two newscasts was less than 30,000 viewers for the week of Jan. 30, when CBS was in third with 7.3 million total viewers, roughly 1.8 million behind the leaders.

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Scott Pelley, Lester Holt, David Muir:
The Unprecedented Joint Interview

Once you get them out from behind their desks, there isn’t much they won’t talk about — including Trump

One reason Muir has gained viewers during his tenure is his staff’s willingness to go after what he calls “high wires” — big scoops presented in an interesting way. He immersed himself in intensive Spanish lessons to conduct a “town hall” with Pope Francis entirely in that language.

“It’s a show that thrives on visceral, visual storytelling,” says ABC News president James Goldston.

Muir scored the first interview with a newly sworn-in President Trump on Jan. 25, a feat that was transformed into an hour-long primetime special. Muir stood his ground when the president cited a Pew Research report as evidence of voter fraud in the election, telling Trump bluntly that the author of the report disagreed with that assessment.

“My duty walking into that White House was to ask the questions that people at home want asked,” says Muir, who keeps behind his desk an American flag that flew above the U.S. Capitol on the day of his first broadcast as official “World News” anchor. “It doesn’t always create the most comfortable moments, but I think President Trump would tell you he wasn’t expecting me to show up and make it comfortable.”

"I will tell you that it was not an instant love affair."

Lester Holt

Age
57

Twitter followers
379K

In the anchor chair since
June 2015

Early Job
radio reporter in San Francisco billed as "fastest Mike in the West"

Lester Holt’s ratings lead is all the more impressive considering how he came into the job. He took over “Nightly News” in June 2015 at a time of great tumult: His predecessor, Brian Williams, had been suspended earlier that year after embellishing details about a reporting trip in Iraq, and ABC had taken the lead in the ad demo and total viewers. Holt brought the lead in both categories back to NBC.

The anchor got his start as a so-called shoe-leather reporter — a boots-on-the-ground correspondent who was billed as “the fastest mike in the West” when he worked for a San Francisco radio station. Viewers still get a glimpse of that.

Holt was strolling home from dinner with his wife one weekend last September 
and ended up just a New York block away from a terrorist bombing in the Chelsea neighborhood. Decades ago, he would drive to crime scenes in a Ford Granada and drop a quarter into a pay phone to call the story in to his station. The night of the Chelsea bombing, he opened an app on his smartphone that lets him listen in on a New York police scanner, learned what was happening, opened another app that allows him to transmit video, and began to broadcast the event for viewers on cable-news network MSNBC.

Holt loves to report, but he had to grow into his current role. “I will tell you that it was not an instant love affair,” he says.

He felt pressure to grow ratings immediately in the wake of the awkward transition in 2015. The celebrity status of the job unnerved him. Suddenly, Holt, who at one point had considered paring back his duties, was interviewing presidential candidates, getting more resources devoted to his stories, and drawing surprised looks from colleagues when he drove his own vehicle while covering a hurricane. “It’s not like I forgot how to drive,” he jokes.

After scoring a scoop with President Obama (Holt flew with him aboard Air Force One to Chicago as he made his farewell speech) and moderating a presidential debate, he feels he’s come through the awkward period. “The last year and a half has been one big test, and I’ve checked them all off.”

“Nightly News” might be best understood as a middle ground between the zippier approach of ABC and the more substantive subject matter of CBS. In 2016, for example, CBS spent far more time than the rival networks covering the Syrian civil war and the Zika virus in the U.S., according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors coverage of the newscasts. NBC spent more time on those topics than ABC, which spent the most time on the presidential campaigns. That formula has helped Muir challenge Holt in the ratings, but “Nightly News” isn’t looking to adjust its strategy anytime soon.

“There have been moments where we are having a bad couple of weeks, and it frustrates us,” Holt notes. “But never to the point when you re-examine your core beliefs.”

"My intent is to be in the seat as far as I can see into the future."

Scott Pelley

Age
59

Twitter followers
53.1K

In the anchor chair since
June 2011

Early Job
copy boy on overnight shift at Lubbock-Avalanche-Journal in Lubbock, Texas

On an early-February day, Pelley stands in “the fishbowl,” a small-windowed room where many of the most important decisions are made about what stories to put on “CBS Evening News.”

The staff is grappling with the U.S. military’s decision to release a short video purportedly seized from its recent raid in Yemen. The images were later discovered to be old al Qaeda footage that surfaced publicly a decade ago.

“I know we haven’t gotten to the bottom of how that raid went wrong,” Pelley tells the producers and reporters around him.

The anchor says he must be skeptical, no matter what the subject. When one producer pitches a feature on Oliver, a deaf dog who was taking part in the annual Super Bowl counter-event known as the Puppy Bowl, Pelley has questions. “He’s deaf? How do you know for sure?” he asks, half-joking. “Maybe he’s just ignoring you.”

Pelley takes his duties seriously. A sailing aficionado, he gave up the hobby for about four years due to his evening-news duties. Behind his desk is a giant painting of the deck of a sailboat, commissioned by his wife, Jane.

He continues to split his time working for “60 Minutes,” where he contributes up to 20 pieces each year. Pelley’s current contract comes due this year, raising speculation about whether he would continue. “My intent is to be in the seat as far as I can see into the future,” he says.

Steve Capus, executive producer of “Evening News” and executive editor at CBS News, says Pelley is a key component of the organization. “It’s natural for people to speculate when contract cycles come up,” he says, adding that Pelley’s “role at ‘Evening News’ is important, but his role at ‘60 Minutes’ is also important.”

The broadcast remains in third place after NBC and ABC, but more people have tuned in under Pelley’s watch: Since he took over in 2010, the newscast has added 1.3 million viewers.

Pelley takes a dim view of some of the Trump administration’s recent antics, but he hopes relations with the media will improve. “I respect the fact that the president is new to politics, and many of the people around him are new to politics,” he says. “Maybe they will be less shoot-from-the-lip as we go forward.”

That’s still no reason not to hold them accountable now, Pelley adds.

No matter their differences, Muir, Holt, and Pelley could be about to gain new attention for the role they play in American life: telling viewers how things really are, with a minimum of the attention-grabbing tricks TV news has turned to over the past several years.

Later, during his broadcast, Pelley doesn’t mince words about that videotape from the military. “In a rush to justify a commando raid that did not go as planned, today the U.S. military offered evidence of success that only raised more questions,” he told viewers. That evidence, he continues, “could have easily been obtained — online, where it has been for the past 10 years.”

Not as many people heard that report from “CBS Evening News” as might have decades ago. But some did. And as life in the United States grows more tumultuous and confusing, every little bit of truth helps.