Lester Holt: Dateline's Meek Mill special, airing Sunday, was sparked by Jay-Z op-ed

If it weren’t for 600 words written by Jay-Z last fall, an hour-long special about Meek Mill might not be airing on a major network this weekend.

Lester Holt, the Dateline anchor and host of NBC Nightly News, said it was the rapper’s op-ed in the New York Times headlined, “The Criminal Justice System Stalks Black People Like Meek Mill,” that first stirred his interest in Mill’s case. A Dateline broadcast called “Dreams and Nightmares: The Meek Mill Story” will air at 7 p.m. Sunday on NBC10.

Holt, who has worked on the special since about March, talked about the access Mill granted his team, putting Dateline‘s cameras in the helicopter with him as he traveled with Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin to a winning game shortly after he was released from prison on bail last week.

“I just think the thing that people will walk away with is, if you had a preconceived notion about rappers, Meek Mill might shake those thoughts a little bit,” Holt said, later adding: “He seems to understand what his role in this conversation is and the impact that it can have.”

Viewers will hear from the Philadelphia-born rapper, whose real name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, as well as his mother, Kathy Williams, sister Nasheema Williams, District Attorney Larry Krasner, Rubin, and others.

Here are highlights of a conversation with Holt, which has been edited for length and clarity.

How were you able to land the interview with Meek Mill, and why do you think his story is important to a national audience?

Our interest in the story really goes back to last fall, when Jay-Z penned an op-ed in the New York Times about Meek Mill and about the probation system, which he made the argument that [it] continued to snap back predominantly black men into the system. That the idea of the probation system is really designed to lift guys out of whatever trouble they got into, but then it may work in the opposite direction, so that got our interest. We started pursuing the story, I’m working with a producer, Dan Slepian — he and I worked on criminal justice reform stories, easily related to wrongful convictions, and we saw an opportunity here to really delve into this issue.

 >>READ MORE: Meek Mill pushes for criminal-justice reform: ‘I made a commitment to speak for the voiceless’

Was this a difficult story to pitch to NBC for a Dateline special?

No, not really. It’s got some star power attached to it. Meek is — well, not every American knows him, certainly a lot of young Americans are aware of his story and his music, and it’s the same reason that it’s drawn so much attention, his story. He recognizes that his celebrity has brought attention to this, and one of the things we talked about is that he feels a special responsibility right now, as a symbol of some of the issues in the criminal justice system, to really continue to draw attention to it. To be quite honest, his celebrity certainly made it an easier pitch.

You’ve had multiple conversations with Mill, both from prison and after his release. Do you feel like he has given you exclusive access, and why do you think that is?

We’ve certainly developed a relationship with him and his team. First, his team. I think that they understood that we wanted to invest more than a couple of minutes, or more than a one-off story with him, and so after that they granted us incredible access. In fact, our cameras were with him moments after his release. We were in the car, we were in the helicopter, we were there as he was Facetiming his family, his buddy Kevin Hart, so I think we established that relationship, we established the fact that we really wanted to move the needle past his story to the heart of the issue, and I think that they felt comfortable with us, so, yeah, they’ve granted us some exclusive access.

 >>READ MORE: A Chronology of the Meek Mill Case

Walk me through the day that Meek Mill was released from prison on bail. Were you in the helicopter with him as well?

I was preparing for Nightly News and I got word. I knew that Dan, my producer, and his camera crew were actually in Philly and so he started sending me these texts, these real-time texts, you know, “Hey, we’re in the car,” and he sends me the video clips, and I’m like wow, this is incredible. … So, it was like, “Get down here.” I came down first thing in the morning. … We met up with Meek, he had virtually no sleep, but he was incredibly articulate and truly thoughtful on this entire subject.

EXCLUSIVE: He had a dream that a helicopter was going to pick him up when he got out of prison. Go inside the @meekmill chopper ride from prison to the @sixers game. More on #Dateline Sunday 7/6c

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In a tweet you posted promoting an exclusive you had with Meek Mill from prison, you said his case was a “national symbol for criminal justice reform.” Could you elaborate on that, and do you think that Meek’s case is unique? Has his fame helped him?

The best I can figure, it works both ways. These lawyers think that in some respect, his fame has worked against him, because he’s been under such a microscope that things that may have gone under the radar with another offender regarding violations, his were right there front and center. But at the same time, he recognizes that other guys who are in the probation system who, they have trouble with violations, they wouldn’t have high-powered lawyers … so it’s cut both ways for him. I think he understands that he’s had an advantage in terms of his legal representation and publicity, part of his case, and that’s helped him but a lot of guys don’t. He does bear this certain responsibility to keep this topic out there and certainly, I think, without him, we wouldn’t be talking specifically about probation reform.

 >>READ MORE: Meek Mill is free, but his case goes on

May 11 will be the one-year anniversary since you interviewed President Trump. Since then, he’s largely exclusively given interviews to Fox opinion hosts. What kind of impact do you think your interview has had, and if you had the opportunity, what questions would you ask him today? 

I would say the day of the interview, after we finished, I turned to one of my producers there, and I was still trying to absorb all we had just heard … just trying to process what was said. I would like to say it was all in a day’s work, but the truth is, it’s bizarre, frankly, to look up at the TV on a regular basis, watch cable TV, and see parts of that interview playing again. Obviously as journalists we hope that all of our work makes some sort of impact, and certainly this has, but I say all that with this, that I think you or any other competent journalist would ask the same questions given the timing of what had happened, the Comey firing had just occurred. … There was no secret sauce or magic. I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to sit down with him at an important point. I think it would be helpful, I think the American people would love to hear from the president in another interview with a mainstream media outlet. I think it would be helpful to hear — a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. … I think it would be helpful for us to hear full explanations of some of his positions right now.

Is your team pursuing anything like that in the near future?

We always have requests in.

It’s been about three years since you replaced Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News. What has that experience been like?

It’s been a real education. When I took the broadcast, everyone said, “Make it your own.” I used to look at them and go, “What does that mean? I don’t know what that means.” But I realize over time that I have. The broadcast reflects some of my values, my desire to get out in the field more, to take the broadcast on the road. I’m a big believer that there should be compassion in our reporting with respect for our viewers and hopefully that comes through in different ways, but I love this job. I love what I do.