November 14, 2007

Moderator Lawrence Spivak, with Sen. Bob Dole, on “Meet the Press” in 1972.

60 Years Ago in News History: America Meets the Press

As "Meet the Press" celebrates its 60th anniversary this month, it is interesting to note that the country’s longest-running and highest-rated network news talk show started out as a radio promotion for a magazine.

In 1945, Lawrence Spivak was the publisher of American Mercury, the 21-year-old irreverent brainchild of legendary Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan.

To promote the magazine, which had suffered financial difficulties over the years, Spivak decided to co-produce and co-host a radio talk show with journalist Martha Rountree called "American Mercury Presents: Meet the Press." Rountree was the show’s first moderator.

Two years later in 1947, "Meet the Press" premiered on NBC-TV, where for nearly 30 years Spivak was a panelist and moderator. The show’s first guest was James A. Farley, postmaster general of the United States.

At first, the show aired only in New York. But it became a hit, and NBC soon took it national. The show was so popular that President John F. Kennedy once called it the "51st state."

Spivak was known for his tough questioning: "Since I wasn’t beholden to anybody, I just felt that the question had to be asked. It just had to be fair and informative and accurate," he said.

In 1964, Spivak asked Indira Gandhi if she "would like to be prime minister of India," the post her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, had held since India’s independence in 1947. "I would not," was her response. Her father died a month after the interview. She became India’s first female prime minister in 1966.

In its history, "Meet the Press" has had nine moderators, including Tim Russert, current managing editor and, at 16 years, the show’s longest serving moderator. (Russert also is a trustee of the Newseum.)

Unlike "Meet the Press," American Mercury never experienced overwhelming success. Circulation was more than 75,000 in 1928, but sales declined after the stock market crashed the following year. Through controversy, several owners and at least one name change, the magazine finally went out of business in 1980. Spivak died in 1994.

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