Lester Holt received the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism at the school's annual luncheon at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Phoenix on Monday.
Holt, who anchors NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC, received the award for his role as a leading figure in journalism. Holt is also the first African American to solo anchor a weekday network nightly newscast, and he was awarded the 2016 NABJ Journalist of the Year Award.
Christopher Callahan, the dean and vice provost of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Holt embodies the journalistic values and principles that the school aims to teach its students.
Holt, on the other hand, said he felt he was thrown into the profession as he lacked a “formal journalism training.”
“I broke a lot of rules and there's many reasons why I shouldn’t be sitting here,” Holt told the crowded ballroom.
He said one of his many hats is his role on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and although many people use words like “fake news” to describe his profession, he acknowledges that those words do not compare to the harsh consequences journalists face in other countries.
“These are worrisome things and I don’t want to downplay it, but I was reminded by someone that no one is stopping us from doing our jobs,” Holt said. “They say bad things about us, but no one is saying you can’t report… and that is happening in many other parts of the world.”
Prior to the luncheon, Holt held a Q&A in the Cronkite building's First Amendment Forum for students, where he spoke to the audience about similar topics as to those discussed in his acceptance speech later that day and answered questions from the audience.
The interview was conducted by Jennifer Alvarez, a senior majoring in journalism and an evening news anchor at Arizona PBS, who said Holt has a knack for balancing truth-seeking and sensitivity for the communities he reports on.
“(Holt) interviews people who have been touched by really tragic events, people that are having the worst time of their lives at times, (who) open up and share such deep personal stories,” Alvarez said.
Each year's award recipient is chosen by the Nominations Committee, a group of members on the Cronkite Endowment Board of Trustees, whose primary responsibility is to decide who they think the best candidate would be.
Lauren Fountain, a sophomore studying journalism and Spanish, said she felt the award was well-deserved, and Holt is a prime role model for aspiring journalists like herself.
“I think regardless of whether you want to be a journalist or not, he sets the bar in simply having compassion for others and looking at the world objectively and without any cynicism,” she said.
Fountain said she admires Holt’s sheer gratitude to the public for letting him do a job he clearly loves.
“To see someone who, after a career of 40 years, still gets giddy when talking about his work gives me hope that there is a path for everyone and that you can love your job,” Fountain said.
When asked about the country’s current political divide, Holt said that, although sometimes concerning, it shows an awareness of the depth of issues.
“It’s very rewarding that people are understanding the importance of a free and independent press,” Holt said.