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MTP at 70: Panelists of America’s ‘Press Conference of the Air’

MTP: 70 Years in 70 Seconds 1:19

The basic formula of “America’s Press Conference of the Air” was settled from the start and announced at the top of the program: “Here in Washington, news center of the world, ready for the conference are four of America’s top newsmen. Their purpose is to get the story behind the story, to get the answers to the kind of questions you would ask if you were here. If the questions seem pointed at times, well, that’s the only way to get a pointed answer. It’s all done in the spirit of a free press and free television.”

There were usually four journalists on the panel. They sat in a row and put questions to a single guest for thirty minutes. A single commercial break in the middle of the program gave the guest a brief reprieve.

The makeup of the panel changed from week to week, although Meet the Press co-founder Lawrence Spivak was a semi-permanent presence. Viewers became familiar with the regulars, and no panelist made a greater national impact than the diminutive and feisty May Craig of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. Fellow panelist Arthur Krock of the New York Times called her “the Washington press-gallery nemesis of all evasive politicians,” while David Brinkley described her as “small and prim with a softly lined face, blue eyes, and curled hair fastened with a whalebone. She wore signature pink pearls and one of thirty-two pink floribunda hats.” To her style, she added severity, saying, “I made up my mind I’d rather be grim than giggly.”

Elizabeth May Craig
Journalist Elizabeth May Craig waiting outside office of House Minority Leader. (Photo by Marie Hansen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images) The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

It was deliberate and effective branding, and it made her instantly recognizable to viewers and politicians. When she died in 1975, Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) marked the loss in the Congressional Record: “Her schoolmarm looks cloaked a brilliant mind, a tenacious and peppery manner, and a sensitive and generous heart…She asked tough questions, and she often got revealing answers…I will miss May Craig.”

Ruth Montgomery

Regular panelist Ruth Montgomery was introduced on Meet the Press as “the only woman in the Washington bureau of the New York Daily News, whose column is read throughout the country.” In 1950 she was elected president of the Women’s National Press Club. Later in life she claimed psychic powers, began automatic typing, and wrote a string of successful books on the occult. She said she had frequent contact with extraterrestrials and predicted that a “walk-in”—someone who has switched souls—would be elected president of the United States in the 1990s.

James Wechsler

The editor of the liberal New York Post experienced Meet the Press from both sides, as a panelist, and as a guest. After his May 5, 1953, testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by anti-communist crusader Senator Eugene McCarthy, Wechsler was interrogated by Lawrence Spivak and the Meet the Press panel on May 17. Wechsler had belonged to the Young Communist League as a young man, and Sen. McCarthy questioned his conversion to anti-communism. In April, Wechsler accused McCarthy of “trying to use a Senate committee to silence newspaper criticism of your activities.” He wrote in a Post editorial that “the function of a newspaper is to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’”

Meet The Press
MEET THE PRESS -- "Senator John F. Kennedy" Aired 02/14/1954 -- Pictured: (l-r) Marquis Childs, May Craig, Ned Brooks, Lawrence Spivak -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank NBCU Photo Bank

Marquis Childs

A self-styled “interpretive reporter” who liked to explain the news. In the early 1950s, he was the moderator of Washington Spotlight, a fifteen-minute weekly roundtable political discussion that was recorded on film and syndicated nationwide. At the same time, his influential “Washington Calling” column was syndicated six times a week by the United Feature Syndicate, for whom Childs was working when he made his first appearance on Meet the Press. He returned to the Post-Dispatch in 1954 and stayed there for the next twenty years. Like Wechsler, he actively opposed McCarthyism.

Fellow Meet the Press panelist James Reston said Marquis Childs had “a sense of history and a sense of humor.” He had reported on the Spanish Civil War and the WW2 battlefields in Europe. In a 1948 exclusive interview with Childs, WW2 hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower distanced himself from the Democratic Party, who were considering him as a presidential candidate.

James Reston
Correspondent James Reston, shown in file photo, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Affairs Reporting. Bettmann Archive

James Reston

Meet the Press panelist R. W. Apple called New York Times journalist James “Scotty” Reston “perhaps the most influential journalist of his generation.” He joined the London bureau of the Times in 1939 on the day Hitler’s troops invaded Poland and World War II began. He remained associated with the newspaper for the next fifty years and won two Pulitzer prizes.

Reston was a perpetual smoker, which led to conflict with anti-tobacco fanatic Lawrence Spivak, who didn’t even allow Fidel Castro to smoke his trademark cigars on the Meet the Press set in 1959 and decorated his office with No Smoking signs. (An exception would have been made for Winston Churchill, Spivak said.) But when John F. Kennedy made his first Meet the Press appearance on December 2, 1951, Reston sat next to Spivak at the panelists’ desk…and lit up a cigarette. Viewers could see smoke drifting by the visibly irked Spivak. In spite of this, Reston was invited back.

Alistair Cooke

The urbane English-born reporter was associated with two record-breaking programs: His Letter from America ran on BBC Radio in the UK for fifty-eight years and 2,869 editions, and as US correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian), he was an early panelist on Meet the Press. On February 2, 1967, he was on the panel interviewing William Manchester about his controversial book The Death of a President. Cooke hosted the pioneering arts and culture program Omnibus on network television from 1952 to 1961 and Masterpiece Theatre on PBS from 1971 to 1992. He became a US citizen in 1941.

Edgar Allen Poe

No relation to the author of “The Raven” and “Fall of the House of Usher,” Meet the Press panelist Poe was a distinguished Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He was one of the first reporters in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb, and he covered the surrender of the Japanese Empire at the end of World War II. In Washington, he served as president of the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents’ Association, which still presents the annual Edgar A. Poe Award for “excellence in news coverage of subjects and events of significant national or regional importance.”

Doris Fleeson

Doris Fleeson worked the Washington beat for forty years, and she was tough. Her fellow journalist Mary McGrory said “Doris Fleeson was not just the first syndicated woman political columnist, she was the only one of either sex to approach national affairs like a police reporter. Until sickness sidelined her in the mid-60's, she roamed the Capitol, a tiger in white gloves and a Sally Victor hat, stalking explanations for the stupidity, cruelty, fraud, or cant that was her chosen prey. Every day, she went to the White House, frequently to put the disemboweling question to the press secretary of the moment.” She was just what Lawrence Spivak and Martha Rountree needed on Meet the Press.