Why Lester Holt went to jail for NBC News

Lester Holt has traveled to war-torn spectacles in foreign lands and America’s smallest towns, all on behalf of NBC News.  For his next journey,  Holt had to go somewhere even more unusual – prison.

As part of “Justice for All,” a broader NBC News report on criminal justice reform, Holt made his way to Louisiana State Penitentiary, the maximum-security prison known as Angola, for a two-night stay in a cell. The results will be shown on NBC’s “Dateline” on Friday at 10 p.m.. On Sunday at 10, MSNBC will show a “town hall” broadcast from Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another maximum-security facility in Ossining, NY, where he will discuss the topic of the week with, among others, singer John Legend, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and 25 inmates from the prison.

If the description above makes you rub your eyes in disbelief, well, mission accomplished. “There is nothing normal about holding a town hall event at a maximum-security prison,” says Dan Slepian, a “Dateline” producer and specialist in criminal justice who worked with Holt on the project.

News organizations are pushing themselves beyond normal operations at a time when their customers’ appetite for information about a complex and quickly changing world is on the rise.  The average combined audience for primetime programming at Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN rose 8% in 2018, according to Pew Research, while total revenue rose 4% to a total of $5.3 billion. The average number of monthly unique visitors to the U.S. news outlets with the highest traffic has risen to approximately 22.4 million in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with nearly 19 million in the fourth quarter of 2014.

Just as NBC News is testing a multi-program approach to analyzing criminal justice, CNN will no doubt examine viewership of what is expected to be multiple hours of a town hall devoted to climate change, slated to take place tonight. Anchors will interview several Democratic candidates for president on the issue in the late afternoon and in prime time. MSNBC and NBC News will cover another climate change forum, held by Georgetown University, later this month.

The toughest part of these events appears to be in the organizing, not the broadcasting. NBC News faced an unprecedented set of challenges in taping its event in Sing Sing last month. The prison has stricter security measures than the White House: No outside communication devices are allowed in the facility. Even audience members for the event had to undergo security checks. And NBC News had to arrange for some pieces of its town hall set – built at the prison with a forklift and other heavy machinery the network procured on its own – to be sent from as far away as Las Vegas.

“We have never done anything like this,” says Rashida Jones, senior vice president of specials for NBC News and MSNBC. “This is just taking the spirit of that town-hall conversation and taking it up ten notches.”

The spark for the project came from Slepian, who has long covered cases of wrongful conviction, and Holt, who in recent years has spent more time on cases of criminal justice reform. He was the first to snare an interview with Meek Mill, the rapper and musician who has tangled with the criminal justice system for years, for example, after Mill’s release from prison last year. Holt says his interest in the topic was in part sparked many years ago, when he covered a man being put to death by lethal injection for WBBM, the Chicago CBS station where he worked for many years. “You become very reflective in that moment: How did we get here?” he says.

Holt and Slepian approached NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack earlier this year about a broader look at criminal justice, making the point that the network could, with its various platforms and news programs, offer something that its competitors might not.

“He bought it,” says Holt. “From there, the onus was on us to deliver.”

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LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- 'October Surprise' Episode 1506 -- Pictured: Lester Holt as himself -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Peter Alexander, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, Lester Holt, Al Roker, Julia Sweeney, Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Jenna Bush Hager, Meredith Vieira, Hoda Kotb, and Kathie Lee Gifford appear on the 'Today' show on Thursday, October 31, 2014 -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Lester Holt and Al Roker appear on the 'Today' show on Thursday, October 31, 2014 -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 0036 -- Pictured: (l-r) Lester Holt and Seth Meyers during the 'Forced Friends' skit on April 24, 2014 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 22: (BROADCAST-OUT) (L-R) Jordan Malone, Eddy Alvarez, J.R. Celski and Chris Creveling of the USA Speed Skating team pose with Lester Holt on the set of the NBC TODAY Show during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 22, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 22: (BROADCAST-OUT) Julie Chu of the USA Women's Hockey team speaks with Lester Holt on the set of the NBC TODAY Show wearing the Ralph Lauren outfits to be worn at the Closing Ceremonies during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 22, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16: (Exclusive Coverage) Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett speak to Lester Holt onstage at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts on June 16, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Todd English, Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 20: NBC journalist Lester Holt attends NBC's 'Grimm' press line during Comic-Con International 2013 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel on July 20, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Lester Holt and Richard Engel appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 4408 -- Pictured: News anchor Lester Holt during an interview on February 13, 2013 -- (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) NBC News' Lester Holt, Natalie Morales, E!'s Jason Kennedy, NBC News' Dylan Dreyer and Erica Hill appear on NBC News' 'Today' show on March 22, 2013 -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Natalie Morales, Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Martha Stewart and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Jane Pauley, Lester Holt and Ann Curry appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Matt Lauer, Jane Pauley, Lester Holt and Ann Curry appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Ann Curry and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Amy Robach and Lester Holt appear on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: Lester Holt appears on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 09: NBC Weekend Nightly News anchor Lester Holt speaks onstage at the 49th USO Armed Forces Gala & Gold Medal Dinner to Honor Military Heroes and Volunteers at 583 Park Avenue on December 9, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for USO of Metropolitan New York)
TODAY -- Pictured: Lester Holt appears on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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Holt believes more Americans ought to wrap their minds around the issue.  “I have been in many prisons in my reporting. One of the things I have experienced is that you are forced to see these inmates as people. You meet them and talk to them, and certainly, they are people who have made some really horrible choices in life in some cases,” says Holt. “But nonetheless, it is important for us to hear from them. One of the main statistics that hung in my mind is that 95% of people who are in prison are going to get out some day. They are going to be our neighbors, walking down the street next to us. They are going to be part of our community. So we all have to care. It’s in all of our best interest they come out of prison better people than when they went in.”

NBC News expects to mount projects of similar depth and complexity , says Jones. “We’ve got some really big swings in the next couple of months,” she says. Before then, Holt will have to hope viewers tune in to see him get out from behind bars.

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