Martha Rountree; ‘Meet the Press’ Pioneer
Martha Rountree, who helped shape television history and public affairs journalism as the co-creator and first moderator of the Sunday morning NBC News interview show “Meet the Press,” died Monday at a Washington hospital. She was 87 and had Alzheimer’s disease.
“Meet the Press” started as a radio show on the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1945.
The program was created jointly by Rountree and Lawrence E. Spivak, the editor and publisher of American Mercury magazine, who initially acted as a permanent member of the otherwise rotating panel of questioners.
The show moved to television in November 1947, and its first guest was Postmaster General James Farley. In those days, there were only a handful of television sets operating and most of them were in New York and a few other urban areas. The program has endured and is now the world’s longest running television show.
Unrehearsed interview shows with statesmen and public figures, commonplace today, were a novelty on the airwaves when “Meet the Press” began.
“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,” Rountree, who was said to be the only female moderator in the show’s history, said in a 1946 interview.
“There is nothing so refreshing as unadorned conviction.”
Rountree was born in Gainesville, Fla, and was brought up in Columbia, S.C. Interested from an early age in writing, she wrote a short story when she was 9 and worked for the Columbia Record newspaper while in college at the University of South Carolina. She left school before graduating and joined the Tampa Tribune as a reporter.
She moved in 1938 to New York, writing advertising copy and freelancing articles to magazines.
She went on the lecture circuit in 1953 when she sold her share of the show to Spivak after a coin toss. The proceeds were reported to be $125,000. Two years later, Spivak turned down an offer by CBS to buy the program and sold it to NBC for a reported $1 million. Spivak’s deal with the network left him in full control of the program, which he moderated from 1965 to 1975.
In the mid-1950s, Rountree brought to the air a new public affairs show called “Press Conference.” She also produced several other public affairs television shows, including “Keep Posted,” “Washington Exclusive” and “Capitol Close Up.”
In 1965, the award-winning journalist founded Leadership, a nonprofit political research organization, and was its president until 1988.
She was married in 1941 to Albert N. Williams Jr. That marriage ended in divorce. She married Oliver Presbrey in 1952. He died in 1988. Survivors include two daughters, a brother, a sister and three grandchildren.