On March 30, 2021, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt made a remark that was later republished by far-right websites. A headline from the conservative National Review read: “NBC’s Lester Holt Urges Journalists to Ditch Objectivity: ‘Fairness Is Overrated.'”
However, this was misleading. He did not “urge journalists to ditch objectivity.” Holt’s usage of the three words “fairness is overrated” came with quite a lot of context.
The moment in question came during the 45th Murrow Symposium. It was organized by the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. Holt was the keynote speaker and received the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication Lifetime Achievement Award.
During his speech, Holt was talking about the rise of misinformation and the new ways it can thrive. He said that these new and potentially “dangerous” voices were “made possible by smartphones and the internet,” which had “opened a whole new hyper-speed network of raw and often unfiltered information.” He also declared that they should not receive equal footing when ensuring journalistic integrity.
But his remarks about the dangers of misinformation on the internet were misconstrued in a misleading headline.
The transcript below covers the moments in question, running in the video from 17:59-22:39:
In the meantime, traditional journalists spent the last four years being labeled enemies of the people, blasted from the world’s biggest megaphone. And it didn’t come without a price. It’s hurt the standing of journalism and allowed misinformation, some of it dangerous, to gain critical mass. And it forced us down a path towards what at times was a toxic relationship between the executive branch and the fourth estate.
That’s not a healthy place for any of us. The media’s reliance on truth and facts was turned upside down and weaponized as evidence of lies. The more we try to separate fact from fiction, the easier it became to label us as partisan tools.
Dog bites man is not a story. It’s common, happens all the time. But man bites dog gets your attention, right? We don’t see that, so it’s news. Safe to say, we chased a lot of those stories the last several years, things we’d never seen before. Now, whether they were good or bad is irrelevant, but we couldn’t look away because they were new and different and had to be reported.
I’m asked a lot now how the news media recovers from the damage. Let me first say the damage only goes so deep, as millions and millions of Americans still turn to news organizations like mine for trusted information. The unprecedented attacks on the press in this period I’m sure we’ll fill plenty of books and be studied in classrooms, maybe even here. But I have a few early observations I’ll share about where this moment brings us and what we can learn.
Number one is I think it’s become clear that fairness is overrated. Whoa, before you run off and tweak that headline, let me explain a bit.
The idea that we should always give two sides equal weight and merit does not reflect the world we find ourselves in. That the sun sets in the west is a fact. Any contrary view does not deserve our time or attention. I know recent events assure that you won’t have to look far to find more current and relevant examples, I think you get my point.
Decisions to not give unsupported arguments equal time are not a dereliction of journalistic responsibility or some kind of an agenda. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Providing an open platform for misinformation, for anyone to come say whatever they want, especially when issues of public health and safety are at stake, can be quite dangerous.
Our duty is to be fair to the truth. Holding those in power accountable is at the core of our function and responsibility. We need to hear our leaders’ views, their policies, and reasoning, it’s really important. But we have to stand ready to push back and call out falsehoods.
Following Holt’s “fairness is overrated” remark, his second point concentrated on “the need to be respected versus the need to be liked.” He said: “Remember this, fact-checking is not a vendetta or attack. We all have a stake in us getting it right.”
The third and final point Holt made concerned the dangers of confusing opinion cable news TV shows with mainstream newscasts:
And lastly, on where we go from here. We will need to take a hard look at our respective lanes and how we make sure we stay between the lines. The TV and media landscape can look very, very much the same. People are who are well-dressed sitting at plexiglass desks against giant video screens with lots of words on them. But the content can be very different.
Opinion-oriented cable programming, featuring provocative and often partisan voices, is popular, and it has its place. But it should not be confused with mainstream newscasts, which have their place too. Informed, knowledgeable analysis is not the same as opinion. I think all media could benefit from greater transparency as to who we are and what our chosen lanes are.
As we strengthen the bonds of trust, we should not be afraid to take satisfaction from revealing reporting, but there should be no place for snark, belittling, or arrogance. But we need a willing public partner to help shore up the pillar of journalism.
Two days after Holt’s remarks in which he referenced “opinion-oriented cable programming,” Fox News published a story that mentioned Tucker Carlson, who hosts an opinion-oriented cable program. The headline read: “Tucker Carlson on NBC anchor Lester Holt’s ‘grotesque’ idea of media fairness.”
In sum, Holt did not urge journalists to ditch objectivity.