NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt was in Philadelphia on Tuesday to interview Strawberry Mansion Learning Center founder Kevin Upshur for a story Holt hopes will remind viewers that news can inspire.
Upshur, who in 2008 converted his family's former bar into an after-school refuge for the neighborhood, drew some attention from outside Philadelphia last summer when the Huffington Post featured him during the Democratic National Convention -- but nothing like this.
What attracted Holt, whose top-rated evening newscast is scheduled to feature the piece Monday as one of its "Inspiring America" segments?
"Kevin Upshur grew up in that neighborhood. His family owned a bar in the neighborhood. They watched violence become a more and more common occurrence there -- the environment was such that they closed the bar. And now he still lives in that neighborhood, and he’s taking it upon himself to solve some of the issues in the area ... by opening the doors to this learning center.
"This isn’t the case of a guy who’s every day driving down to a rough neighborhood and helping kids. He’s taking a stake in the place he lives," the anchor said in a phone interview Thursday.
The way Holt sees it, stories like Upshur's are needed now.
"We’re obviously in a very divided period, a more divided period, right now. People don’t always feel good about their neighbors, and we tend to see each other in shades of red and blue. And what I like about these stories is you watch them, and you’re not thinking they’re politics," he said.
"I look for stories that remind us how much we have in common. I’m always a glass-half-full guy. I think that we’re good people. And sometimes we have to step away and remind ourselves that we’re good people.”
Holt, who recently co-hosted the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards with Jane Pauley, telling attendees that journalists should do their jobs and avoid getting "trapped in a debate," said he found the current climate, in which journalists' roles are being questioned, in some ways freeing.
"We’re being challenged in ways we’ve never been challenged before, [and] I find it kind of empowering. Because it gives us a license now to just do what we know how to do, and call things as they are. We don’t have to worry about trying to be liked anymore," Holt said. "What are they going to do? Label us the opposition party? They’ve already done" that.
Broadcast newscasts like his have a unique role, Holt said. "As I scan the news landscape sometimes, in some of the more opinion-oriented areas, the thing I often notice is that, you know, they’re not necessarily reporting untruths, but they’re leaving something out, and I think perspective is the most important thing that we offer, which is that we don’t want to leave things out that might color the story. We want to bring it all to the table. ‘Here’s what’s happening, here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, here’s how it affects you.’ I mean, that’s really the basic premise that drives us every night."
The biggest challenge now, the anchor said, "is reminding people why some of these seemingly little things are important. When we ask about the president’s tax returns, you know, we’re not whining, we’re not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill -- these things are important. When we talk about conflicts of interest, potential conflicts of interest, these things are important. I think somehow we have got to get back and remind people what we do, what our role in society is, that it’s so critical that we hold people’s feet to the fire, and our leaders’ feet to the fire."