NEW YORK >> NBC News anchor Lester Holt learned while going through customs in North Korea that his request to visit the heavily-fortified border with South Korea had been denied, and he was headed to a ski resort instead.
His schedule was not his own, and Holt is only the latest journalist to learn the price of peeking into one of the world’s most restrictive societies. Holt’s first trip to North Korea was timely, with international tensions high and NBC weeks away from broadcasting the Winter Olympics from South Korea. But Holt and NBC also faced criticism for presenting an air-brushed view of the dictatorship.
“I absolutely think the trip was worth it,” the NBC “Nightly News” anchor said. “We talk about this place, we hear the bellicose language from its leader and we hear the reaction from our country. It’s important to get on the ground. You go to a place like North Korea with your eyes wide open.”
Holt’s reports began Saturday and continued after he returned to the U.S. on Tuesday — and there was a marked change in tone after he got home.
Critics like former Fox News commentator Eric Bolling tweeted disgust with Holt’s on-air comment on Monday that he had been treated with respect by the North Koreans. The New York Post, in an editorial, said that “we’re still trying to figure out why NBC ‘Nightly News’ and Lester Holt decided to shill for North Korea’s dictatorship.”
It was clear even from Holt’s early reporting that he was being shown only what the regime wanted him to see. While at the ski resort, he said on Sunday’s “Today” show that “what you’re seeing here certainly flies in the face of a country that’s undergoing crippling sanctions and that may be part of the reason we were invited to see this.”
Still, he watched his words. Holt operated under the assumption that everything that was said, including internal editorial discussions among NBC colleagues, was being monitored while he was still in their country, he said.
“I don’t want to say we censor ourselves, but you have to be mindful of the fact that you’re continuing the trip there,” he said. “You’re considerably more free when you’re out of there in how you frame certain things.”
In his report Tuesday after returning home, Holt said that he hadn’t seen many cars on the road and that while the ski resort was a source of pride for the North Koreans, it appeared to only be open to the nation’s elite. He made note of apparent poverty in rural areas when he was on the road, including the preponderance of manual labor, but his NBC camera operators were told to delete video it had taken.
The Tuesday report was coupled with an interview with a former North Korean turned dissident and now in hiding for fear of assassination — one that surely wouldn’t have aired while he was still in the country.
“As a reporter, you always want more,” he said. “We want to be able to control where we go, who we can’t talk to, and we weren’t able to. That’s frustrating, but it wasn’t like we didn’t know that going in.”
Network news crews need to carefully weigh the value of such trips, particularly when money is tight, said Tom Nagorski, executive vice president of the Asia Society and a longtime executive at ABC News, where he was involved in planning the network’s overseas coverage. Ultimately, when you’re seeking a depth of understanding, there’s no substitute for traveling to the country and seeing the people, even if the picture is incomplete, he said.
The true value comes in multiple trips to a country like North Korea, when a reporter becomes attuned to subtle changes in how people act and even what they wear, he said. He noted recent reporting by ABC News’ Bob Woodruff that illustrated his depth of knowledge about the country.
Even when she traveled to restricted areas in North Korea, Myanmar and China, veteran Boston Globe reporter Indira Lakshmanan said she soaked up valuable information. It’s important for journalists to be up front about the limits they were placed under so viewers or readers can keep the information in context, said Lakshmanan, an analyst for the Poynter Institute.
“Reporting under the strictures of a repressive regime is often the only legal and safe way into a place,” she said.
Holt believes the ski resort was selected so North Koreans could show that the country wasn’t as backward as depicted. While there, he also met with sports representatives to talk about the country’s participation in the Olympics and had a meeting with a top government official that he said turned into a lecture.
Holt, who said he learned three weeks ago that a longstanding request to get in the country had been approved, suggested the North Koreans were motivated “by a sense that they want to move past the nuclear issue, and to declare that ‘we are a nuclear nation, deal with it, and we want relations on another level now.’”
He said that it was interesting to hear the voice of the people. “Even though you know you’re not sure that you’re hearing their true voice, it’s certainly the voice of the country.”