How and Why I Became a TV News Producer: The Debbie Holinstat Story
A tour of Debbie Bornstein Holinstat’s career: her beginnings, why she is a news producer and a writer, and valuable advice for news production beginners.
Debbie Bornstein Holinstat wears a variety of hats. She has more than 20 years of writing and producing for some of the biggest names in broadcast news, such as Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News, CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield, and the Today Show’s Natalie Morales. She also is the New York Times Bestselling Author of “Survivors Club”, whereby she travels around the country visiting schools and institutions sharing the family story of her dad, Michael Bornstein, who was a Young Prisoner of Auschwitz. Debbie, not only works part-time as a TV news producer for MSNBC News, but she is also a wife and a mom of three kids.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing her. We talked about her beginnings as a news producer, what she studied, and how the story of her father gave life to her passion for telling stories. There’s also an impact story from September 11th, 2001 when a young Debbie was doing coverage for a TV Station. She even offers stellar advice for beginning news producers as well as sharing what the most important skills are to develop early on.
Q: You spent more than 20 years producing and writing, but you studied education. Why did you start in education?
I originally planned to be a teacher. So, I went to study preschool primary education and I was going to teach, I thought, at elementary schools or preschools, and I am still working with children. So I have some of my own. But when I was a junior in college, just for fun, I wanted to do something different. So, I interned in Washington DC for CNN and while I was there, there was a huge terror attack — the Oklahoma City Bombing. I became so interested in the process of — you know, the chaos of the newsroom, the excitement of breaking news, and being there to witness information as it comes in, and help anchors get the news on the air. I just found the whole thing so exciting, and so I went back to school for my senior year, and I knew that I had to make a change. So, I finished my education major, but also I added a dual major in public policy. And then I interned at night for the NBC affiliate in Saint Louis near my university. And I got a lot of hands-on experience there. Then I got my first job for reporting in a small town in Iowa.
Q: How big is the city? What did you do there?
The town only has a few stoplights. And there are a couple thousands of people, but we broadcast out to a much larger area in Iowa. It was a very rural area. So, I did a lot of reporting on hog prices and the corn and soybean industry. A lot of tornado chasing, I would chase tornados with a photographer, and these are the big stories in Iowa.
It was certainly an interesting beginning. I can’t say that I loved LOVED everything about it. I moved on to a larger town in Iowa: Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City television market. So it was a much bigger television market. But it was still a smaller area and very different. There weren’t a lot of Jewish people at all, so I felt a little isolated, but there were very nice people. I was anxious to come back to the north-east.
Then in 2000, I was hired to work for MSNBC as a field producer covering the 2000 presidential election.
Q: So, you went unscaled from the small town to the big city?
To the big city. At that time MSNBC was based in New Jersey, in Secaucus, NJ. But I lived in New York City and I commuted cross bridge to NJ. It was a really fascinating election, because that was an election that was the first-ever in the country, the only ever, that was tied.
I had to spend several months in Florida where the votes were being recounted. They were trying to decide who won Florida because whoever won Florida, won the election. So it ended up being George W. Bush.
And it was a very interesting time in our country. I thought it would be the most interesting election I would ever cover, but it turns out that was not the case.
Then during my first couple of years working there, there were the World Trade Center attacks. So I spent a long time field producing down from Ground Zero and traveling the country for military deployments because we went to war soon after that. It was a tragic time in our history, but I felt privileged to be there covering it.
Q: You mention that you find news exciting. Is that one of your reasons for why you produce? And also why do you find the news exciting?
Yeah, I mean it is a little perverted to love covering this kind of, you know, all of this terrible kind of news.
And it’s not like I don’t feel anything. I feel very upset covering different stories. But there’s also such as high, such excitement that comes from knowing. You have this awesome responsibility to present incoming information to the country and I considered it a privilege and I considered it a big responsibility.
I take it very seriously to try to make sure that whatever I write is balanced and fair.
And I’m human, like everybody else, so obviously mistakes are sometimes made, especially when you are working super, super-fast, but overall I feel like I work very hard to make sure that whatever I put on the air is very fair, and very balanced.
Q: Tell me about your work from Ground Zero in 2001. Did you work on that day?
Yes, I did. I was home because I worked the later shift that day. So I was home, and I got a phone call from the TV station, that something big was happening. They did not know exactly what, but from what they understood, a plane had struck one of the towers.
They just asked me. They knew that I was in New York City. More people lived in New Jersey at the time because the station was in New Jersey. So they called me, and I was in New York. And said just get down there as quickly as you can and call us.
So, I did. You couldn’t go all the way down there because I was listening on the radio in a taxi cab, and they said another plane had struck, so I knew at that point that is probably a terror attack. And the cab let me out a good 10 or 15 blocks away. We couldn’t get any closer. So then I just started running as close as I could get. And I started seeing people rushing toward my direction. As I was coming, people were running the other way, covered in dust. That was right after the first tower had fallen, and it was hard to understand. I wasn’t getting the news anymore, and my phone wasn’t working. There was no cell reception anymore because of the people calling.
I didn’t really know what was happening. I mean, it was very confusing to be down there, and try to report or do anything useful. So all I did was just run around trying to find a story, trying to get someone to talk to me and give me some more information.
And I came across a man who was Hispanic American, who had just gotten married, and he was in one of the towers around the 80th floor, and he said that when the first tower was hit, his wife worked 2 floors down from him, and they called each other. At first, they could speak because the phones were working. She called him and she said, “My whole team is scared, we don’t know what’s happening, we’re going to leave. We’re just going downstairs.” So he knew that she had gotten out. He was still there when the plane struck just a couple of floors above him.
The whole place went black and everything fell, collapsed, down on top.
The furniture all collapsed and he was sort of saved underneath some furniture that fell, it was a little hole there and he was saved. He wasn’t injured. I mean, he was injured; he was bleeding but he was okay. So he went to a stairwell. And he went down more than 80 flights. He ran and he got out before the towers fell. But he couldn’t find his wife, Adianna.
I stayed with him. Eventually, I could get a little cell reception. And I called the TV station. And we put him on the air on the phone. I couldn’t connect with the TV crew. So everybody — it was so infrequent the reception — I couldn’t get to where a crew was. So we just did phone interviews. He said he is looking for his wife. And he just wanted her to know that he loved her and he was safe and he was looking for her.
And then hours went by and he and I went to every hospital, because I thought, Oh I’m gonna be there for their reunion, you know, what a beautiful story. So we went from hospital to hospital looking for her name on lists, and we couldn’t find it. And then the sun was starting to go down. And I said to him, “Maybe you want to go home.” He lived in Brooklyn. He had no money. I gave him the money that I had to get a cab if he could find one. I said, “Try to get home.” But he stayed with me and finally, we got a little more reception.
Every time that we had reception, he would try to call Adianna. He couldn’t reach her. But he finally reached her boss — no, her bosses’ wife. And her boss’s wife said we’ve all been calling all day, nobody from the team has been found. They couldn’t find anybody from the team. All they heard was their spouses’ had gone downstairs when the first tower struck and they went outside to the street, but they didn’t — and they were down below.
I thought for the first time: Oh my god. Maybe she was killed by the tower collapsing on her.
He and I stayed in touch for months, she was never found. Her body was never found. But she never came home, and neither did anybody else from her team.
So it was terrible.
I continued to produce from down there. I stayed until midnight. And then every day I would go back before the sun came up and I would just meet up with the television crews there. They wouldn’t let us too close. Which was a blessing, of course, we would have lung disease if we did.
I reported from there. Then, I started traveling to military bases, where they were deploying troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Q: Neuroscientists say that to have a memory of a moment in your life, you need to feel some kind of emotions to record it. The example I normally use to explain this better is: “Where were you on September 11, 2001?” And almost all people remember it. But, in your case, you were there, at that point in world history. Therefore, I sense that you have a lot of memories because as a news producer you live the story knowing all the details. Not only a call from the office or get the story from others but also sometimes it’s going to the story, to the place. Right?
You never forget. Each one is so embedded in your soul. But now I do a different kind of producing. Because I have kids, I can’t travel so easily. So now I do exactly what you said. I sit at my desk, and I report break information. I miss being out in the field. I don’t miss days like September 11th, but I miss being where the action — where the stories are happening and feeling almost a part of it. Not a part of it but like a spy watching. I miss that. And I think that one day I’ll go back to doing that when my kids are a little bit older. But for right now I have to settle for this, which is just fine.
Q: You started with producing news, and in 2017 you wrote the “Survivors Club” book with your father?
I always wanted to write about my father’s story. Really, from the time that I was young, and I knew he was a survivor, and I always wanted to but my dad didn’t want to talk. Honestly, I wrote other people’s stories instead.
I became a TV producer, and I told other people’s stories, but in the back of my mind, that was always the story I wanted to tell.
So, I’m very glad that I finally got that opportunity that my father was ready. We sat down — we spent countless hours talking. But my father was young. He was a four-year-old boy when he was liberated from Auschwitz. And so, really it was more research that had to be done. And so I was able to find other survivors who encountered him in various places in his life in the ghetto and in Auschwitz and I was able to piece together the parts of his life that he can’t remember. So that was amazing to be able to give him as a gift. He is so happy that his kids and grandkids now have this thing that will always remember them what he went through.
And also ironically it means that I’m sort of back where I started because I travel to schools all over the country now, and speak to students about the Holocaust. So my life kind of came full circle with this. So it’s been wonderful. I teach about one subject. It is a subject that sounds like ancient history, but it’s so important today. Because when you teach about the Holocaust, you’re teaching about kindness, and you’re teaching about the need for empathy and the need for tolerance to treat people who are different from you as equals. It reminds people what happens if you don’t stand up when you see injustice. If you think, Oh that’s not me, that doesn’t affect me, or if you see injustices in your own people, and you think, Oh, it’s not a big deal. I’m just not gonna make a big deal about that. I’m ignoring it.
The holocaust started with a little spark which was some discrimination, some mean jokes, and graffiti, vandalism, and then it just grew and grew so quickly. So it’s a reminder of why we can’t pretend the little signs of hatred aren’t a big deal.
Q: Why the name of “Survivors Club”? Do you plan to write more books?
So it’s called “Survivor’s Club” because this isn’t just my father’s story. It’s his family’s story, but it is also the story of 6 million Jewish people who were targeted, and the survivors who made it to safety. But I’m working on another project now actually. We’ll see where it goes. It’s a World War II story again. It has really nothing to do with the Holocaust. It’s a story about the first-ever marine world dog unit during World War II. People thought it was a joke to have dogs in war. People laughed at it. But there were a few leaders in the military who thought, let’s try it.
This small pack of dogs ended up changing the game completely in the Pacific Theatre so in Guam and islands near Japan. We might not have won back some of these places, because they were so hard to detect. The Japanese were so good — they were such good soldiers, but the dogs could smell them from more than a half-mile away. So the Japanese could never again sneak up on a group of soldiers or marines. Because dogs could detect them so perfectly. There were a lot of amazing, heroic stories of dogs and handlers. So anyway, I’m working on that right now and we’ll see where it goes.
Q: Now you work part-time at MSNBC News. How does it work?
I’ve worked there for 20 years now, so we have a really great relationship, so sometimes I’ll just call them, and I’ll say “Hey next week I am out of town…” and they usually say yes. Sometimes I wait and I see if they call. I was sick this week, so I thought let me see if I can — I’m fine staying home, too. But they wanted me to work tomorrow, I’ll be fine by tomorrow.
So, they call me when they need me. And I call them sometimes to let them know when I am free. But I usually work a couple of days a week.
Q: What are the most important skills to develop as a media producer?
Well, the kind of producing that I do, the most important thing is writing. To be a strong writer. Because 90% of my job is spent writing what the anchors say. When I was in the field, it wasn’t quite the same because the reports wrote their own pieces.
It was important to be organized and to have a vision of where the story is going.
To be able to have good communication skills and have people want to talk to you, because a lot of people distrust the media. So it’s really good to just be someone that people like, and they want to talk to, and they want to trust you, and they want to give information to you. So I used my people skills for that, and I think it’s important, above all, to have a passion for this job. I think it shows when you don’t. It takes a lot of energy to put a show on the air, and I think you have to love it, or else you’ll have a miserable life.
Q: What is your advice for people that want to start in the news production industry?
Now things are different. I mean you can have direct access to people. There are kids, who are still in college, who are putting together their own podcasts. And that is wonderful for a lot of reasons. But it’s also very scary, so I guess what I would say is: listen to your elders. Don’t go in thinking you know everything.
When I even think about my first news reports, all the silly, stupid mistakes that I made. I mean, I remember covering in my first market a flood. There was a flood. And there was someone going by in a boat. And they had kids, and I said, “Oh my god, look at how much fun they are having. Look, they’re going by in a boat.” And I came back and one of the older producers and reports schooled me. “That’s incredibly dangerous. The water can be electrified. And it makes it unsafe then people have to go to — the firefighters have to rescue these idiots that are out there.” And I was making it like a joke. You know, it’s an innocent mistake — it’s an understandable mistake — but I was still a kid. And I was still — and I took that, and I remember that. Unfortunately, there are people who, even younger than I was on the air, can just put themselves on television now, or put themselves out there. And it is a big responsibility. You have to take seriously. And you have to want to learn from people who have been in the business longer.
So, I would just say, don’t think you know everything. Know that — whatever you think you know there is more. I am still learning every day from our veteran anchors and producers, and so just, know that there is a lot to learn about content. Even if you think you’ve mastered all of the digital and mechanical ways of putting yourself on the air, there is so much to learn about content.
Thank you! For your time and all the information.
Debbie is a passionate and inspirational person, and she is a real story hunter committed to searching for facts and valuable information.
I hope this interview is useful for you and your career. We will continue to share interviews with different professionals based on our commitment to helping media producers grow.
Author: Renzo Esposito
Copy Editor: Lyric Nelson