Because politics has been a predominantly male field, network television’s longest running series, Meet the Press, has featured more men than women being interviewed by its panel of reporters. This is a little bit of television irony, because this informational program, a staple on radio and then television since the midforties, was, in fact, created by a woman, Martha Rountree. A model of Southern gentility on the outside, with a iron-willed determination underneath, or, as Mrs. William Randolph Hearst memorably summed her up, “a diesel engine under a lace handkerchief,” Rountree became one of media’s foremost producers, reporters, and moderators of political-themed programming, keeping the world abreast of events and issues through such additional series as Keep Posted, Washington Exclusive, and Capital Closeup, while also giving women their own forum, on Leave It to the Girls. She had the distinction of being not only Meet the Press‘s first moderator, but remains to this day, the show’s only female host. Rountree described herself as a “blunt speaking, down to earth television news reporter,” adding, “and I’m proud of it.” Her no-nonsense, direct approach encouraged politicians to open up, which helped to keep the country that much better informed on important issues she believed we were entitled to know about. “Freedom of the press is America’s first line of defense,” she explained. “It is something that must be fought for continuously—not taken for granted.”
Born in Florida, Rountree was raised in Columbia, South Carolina, where her interest in writing became evident early on when she wrote a short story, entitled “This Crazy World,” when she was only nine years old. While attending the University of South Carolina, she worked on the Columbia Record. Choosing journalism over continuing her education she quit school and returned to the state of her birth to accept a reporter job at the Tampa Tribune. Her duties included writing a sports column under the name “M. J. Rountree,” its readers none the wiser as to the sex of the journalist who was, after all, writing in a field dominated by men. A local CBS station was impressed enough by her work that they gave her a chance to write for radio for the first time, after which she headed north to New York, where she wrote ad copy for the medium. But Rountree was not comfortable playing so minor a part of an industry she felt held greater opportunities for her. “I got the ideas, worked them out; other people got the credit,” she lamented. “I wanted to produce myself. So I took a radio apart to find out what made it tick, right from the control room to the sponsor.” To prove that she meant business, she and her sister Ann opened a production firm called Radio House, which prepared transcribed programs and singing commercials.
1945 was Rountree’s banner year. She made her mark on radio in a big way, selling the idea for two different panel shows to the Mutual network, premiering them a day apart in October. Leave It to the Girls was intended to be a highly serious program that would allow a quick-witted panel of four women to discuss problems and issues sent in by listeners. Paula Stone served as moderator while the notable ladies called on to participate during the run of the show included Faye Emerson, Lucille Ball, Sylvia Sidney, and Binnie Barnes. In a short time, the tone became more light-hearted as the focus shifted almost entirely to dissecting the pains and joys of coping with the opposite sex. Frequently a male panelist was invited to offer his side of the argument. Girls ran for four years on the Mutual network, overlapping with its premiere on local television in 1947, finishing its radio run in January of 1949 before making the transition to NBC nightly television in April of that year. For the new medium Maggi McNellis was engaged as moderator, while the show’s two most frequent panelists from radio, Eloise McElhone and Florence Pritchett, stayed on. Girls remained on the prime-time schedule until March of 1954, returned as a syndicated series for the 1962-63 season, and was reincarnated for a brief run in 1981, this time with the title Leave It to the Women.
Premiering on October 5, 1945, one day before the fluffier Girls, was Rountree’s far more important and enduring contribution to broadcasting, Meet the Press. Although frequently credited as a cocreation of Rountree and Lawrence E. Spivak, publisher and editor of American Mercury magazine, authoritative sources adamantly state that it was Rountree who developed the premise on her own, with Spivak joining up as coproducer and business partner in the enterprise after the show had already debuted. The idea of Meet the Press was to coax a leading public figure to face a panel of reporters cold, minus script or prepared statements, which, hopefully, would bring forth a more revelatory and personal degree of discussion to “find out what they stand for.” During its five-year run on the Mutual radio network on Friday evenings, Meet the Press hosted such important figures as California governor and future chief justice Earl Warren, President Harry Truman, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, with Rountree presiding over the chat and Spivak its “permanent panelist.”
Instantly championed by critics and considered important enough to be carried by wire service reporters, Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram and Sun, wrote that it put “wallop” into interviewing. Meet the Press earned a Peabody Award in 1947, a Radio & Television Arts and Sciences Award in 1951, and a second Peabody (qualifying for having changed to a new medium) in 1952. Rountree herself was given special citations from the Women for Achievement and as the outstanding woman in television for 1951 by the National Fraternity for Women in Journalism. Commenting on the need for such a program, she told the New York Times, “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.”
While still broadcasting on Mutual radio, Meet the Press arrived on television on NBC’s New York affiliate nighttime schedule on November 6, 1947, before many Americans had even purchased a TV set. Rountree remained the moderator until 1953, handing over the reigns to Ned Brooks, who would stay with the show for the remainder of its prime-time run, until August of 1965. After that point the series moved to Sunday where it is broadcast to this day. Six other moderators succeeded Rountree, including Spivak, but she remains, to date, the only woman to hold the position. As if Rountree didn’t have her hands full enough, commuting between New York and Washington, D.C., to supervise Girls and Press respectively, she and Spivak developed another public affairs program, this time for the DuMont network, Keep Posted. Rountree again served as moderator, with the panel consisting of average citizens instead of reporters, directing their questions at politicians and other public figures. Once sponsorship from the Saturday Evening Post ended, the program changed its name to The Big Issue for its last season on the air.
The producing duo added a third series to their resumes in 1953 with Washington Exclusive, the premise of which gave six former senators the chance to discuss civil and military affairs. Also assisting on the producing end was Oliver Presbrey, whom Rountree married in 1952. As with each of her shows, persuading her guests to appear was simple. “Here is a chance for you to tell your story to the American people,” she would explain. “If you are honest, and believe what you say, there is nothing to fear.” In 1953, Rountree sold her interests in both The Big Issue and Meet the Press to Spivak. Two years later she concentrated on launching a monthly magazine, Know the Facts and started her own radio station, WKTF, in Northern Virginia.
She did not, however, stay away from television for long, returning in the summer of 1956 as the moderator of Press Conference, which changed its original format to one more akin to that of Meet the Press, with Rountree presiding over a panel of journalists tossing questions at pivotal newsmakers. So important had she become as a television figure that for the final three months the series was retitled Martha Rountree’s Press Conference. Following its run, she returned to her radio roots with a live program she created and produced, in collaboration with Lucy Jarvis, Capital Closeup, a daily forty-five-minute talk show examining current events. The midafternoon scheduling was done deliberately, to favor female listeners, Rountree believing that women wanted something meaningful to talk over with their husbands when they came home from work. The Rountree format of keeping public leaders on their toes was never better reflected than an interview conducted for the program with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who felt such pressure on the air that he swore to never again consent to such scrutiny. During the series’s run Rountree could frequently be seen on NBC’s The Nation’s Future, another series presenting debates on topical subjects.
After leaving the Closeup program in the midsixties, Rountree created the Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit political research group, designed to bring concerned American citizens together in a coordinated effort to research urgently needed facts. She served as its president until 1988. One of her key aims was to bring focus on the need to restore traditional American values, believing that there was a growing moral lapse in the country which she blamed on the prevalence of drugs, sex, and violence. One solution, she believed, was to reinstate voluntary prayer in the nation’s schools, something for which she campaigned extensively. This controversial stance, however, in no way damaged Rountree’s reputation as one of the truly important and most admired names in the world of public affairs programming. “I think of Martha as one of the most creative women I’ve ever known,” said Liz Carpenter, former Staff Director and Press Secretary for First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. “She won a wide audience by initiating a thoughtful debate of issues on the air before it became commonplace.” Martha Rountree died on August 23, 1999, in Washington, where she had made her name as one of the key figures in political reporting. Her present day successor in the moderator’s seat, Tim Russert, summed up her status in the medium by declaring, “She was a news pioneer who helped create a national treasure, Meet the Press.”