The following is a guest post by Cary O’Dell, Assistant to the National Recording Preservation Board.
You might never have heard of her, but Martha Rountree is one of the most important women in the history of American broadcasting. The longevity of her “product” rivals Lucille Ball’s. Her importance and influence is as esteemed as Joan Ganz Cooney, who created Sesame Street. Rountree was the co-creator and original host of the program now acknowledged to be the longest running in television history–Meet the Press.
It began on TV in November 1947 and is still on the air today. Thanks to a 1986 donation from NBC, the Library of Congress today houses thousands of hours–both film and audio–of Meet the Press episodes. Out of that collection, over 526 episodes date from the Rountree era (1945-1953) when the program was airing concurrently over both TV and radio–two different shows a week, one for each medium.
Rountree, along with being the program’s co-creator, producer and chief “booker,” also acted as the show’s sole host/moderator. These “Meet the Press” episodes, which featured the likes of John Foster Dulles, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John F. Kennedy, Joseph McCarthy and Estes Kefauver in the “hot seat,” are familiar to many viewers today; clips from them are sometimes used on the present-day incarnation of Meet the Press where they serve as segues to the show’s commercial breaks. The Library, of course, archives the complete program just as they aired over a half century ago.
Rountree was born in 1911 in Gainesville, Florida, and like most early television journalists, began in print and radio before coming to the new world of the small screen. After high school and a few journalism courses at the University of South Carolina, she worked at newspapers such as the Columbia (S.C.) Record and the Tampa Tribune before moving to New York City where she and her sister briefly operated their own radio production company. In 1945 she created her first original program, Leave It to the Girls, for the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Originally hosted by Paula Stone, Leave It to the Girls was The View of its day as each week a cross-section of notable female personalities gathered to discuss any number of timely and politically issues. Regular panelists included Ilka Chase, Jinx Falkenberg and, occasionally, actresses like Sylvia Sidney and Lucille Ball. With time Leave It to the Girls became–like The View–more focused on issues of romance, marriage and other gender quandaries, frequently adding one male panelist for alternative viewpoints. Though the show eventually deviated from Rountree’s original intent, it proved popular and ran for two years, eventually even migrating to Mutual television where it ran another five.
Rountree would have much greater and long-lasting success with her next media endeavor. Joining forces with Lawrence Spivak, then the publisher and editor of The American Mercury magazine, Rountree created Meet the Press, a roundtable-type show where four of America’s top newspaper reporters would grill a prominent news figure. She said at the time, “I think it is important that the public should hear its elected officers speak out and take their stand in answer to direct questions without preparation or oratory. There is nothing so refreshing as unadorned conviction.”
Meet the Press began on Mutual Radio on October 5, 1945. From the onset, Rountree assumed the role of moderator, while Spivak served as the show’s producer. At the time of her debut, Rountree was one of only two women in the nation then hosting their own public affairs program, the other being Eleanor Roosevelt. From the start the show generated almost as much news as it discussed. On one early broadcast, Senator Theodore Bilbo admitted to once having been a member of the KKK. On another, the head of the United Mineworkers Union announced a strike before he informed his own membership.
Just two years after its arrival on the radio airwaves–and after garnering a Peabody Award for broadcast excellence–Meet the Press debuted on television. Its first episode appeared on November 6, 1947, over NBC. Once again, Rountree was in the moderator’s seat. Now a Sunday morning staple, for its first 18 years Meet the Press aired in primetime and continued to make news just as it did on radio. Though only 5’6″, blond, disarmingly pretty, and possessed of a voice that still maintained a slight hint of Southern gentility, Rountree nevertheless cut an authoritative figure and wasn’t afraid to interrupt even the most forceful speaker. She was described in one magazine profile as a “diesel engine under a lace handkerchief.”
As unusual as it was to see a woman like Rountree in such a prominent journalistic role during this period, she wasn’t completely alone. By the late 1940s, newswoman Pauline Frederick was hosting her own weekly newscast over ABC and radio legend Mary Margaret McBride would bring her folksy interview style to primetime network TV beginning in 1948. Rountree would remain at the helm of Meet the Press until 1953 when disagreements between her and Spivak became insurmountable.
By 1956, Rountree was back on the air in another TV program of her own creation, Press Conference. Later, she returned to radio to create the daily syndicated program Capitol Close-Up. Debuting in 1957, Close-Up was on the air until the mid-1960s. Later, with her husband Oliver M. Presbrey, she launched a Warrenton, Virginia, radio station, WKTF (its call letters stood for “Know The Facts”) and founded the DC-based Leadership Foundation, an organization created to “establish and maintain a world information center in the nation’s capital.” Rountree would serve as the Foundation’s head until 1988, passing away 10 years later from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
In 1997, Meet the Press celebrated its 50th year on the air. Along with on-air retrospectives, and a commemorative book, the show also threw a gala party. The guest of honor was the show’s co-creator, original host, and after nearly 70 years on the air, still its only female moderator: Martha Rountree.