TV’s most important interview show treated MLK shabbily

TV’s most important interview show treated MLK shabbily

Power points

  • When “Meet the Press” plays "historic" clips of Martin Luther King Jr. on the show, it's whitewashing its own history.
  • Dr. King was asked onto "MTP" just five times in 11 years and was usually treated with condescending and hostile questions.
  • There’s an important lesson here for every watcher of the news
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During the April 1, 2018, episode of “Meet the Press,” billed as “the longest-running television program in history,” moderator Chuck Todd took a moment to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

“Dr. King was on ‘Meet the Press’ five times, and in an appearance in 1965, Dr. King explained his advocacy of non-violent disobedience,” he said.

Wait a minute — five times??!

Let that sink in: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on the nation’s most-watched newsmaker show just five times between 1957 and 1968.

But wait! It gets worse.

During those few appearances on “Meet the Press,” Dr. King was subjected to  hostile and demeaning interrogations that had little to do with the struggle against Jim Crow. Needless to say, Chuck Todd made no mention of that.

Dr. King's relationship with "Meet the Press" stands out because of the show's prestige, how rarely he appeared on it, and how badly he was treated when he was on. Dr. King spent nearly all his time on "Meet the Press" playing defense, rather than having the honest conversation about race that white America needed (and still needs).

I credit Chuck Todd for mentioning how few times Dr. King actually appeared on "Meet the Press." But when Todd only plays a carefully chosen, majestic-sounding clip from one of these appearances, he is whitewashing his show's  troubled history with the civil rights leader.

Every civil rights anniversary is an opportunity for news programs to play some of Dr. King's words and bask in his reflected glory. The irony is that these are the same news outlets that treated him so badly when he was alive. 

Lacking an understanding of the lived black experience in America, pundits and reporters were less interested in learning about race relations from Dr. King than in grilling him about his tactics, goals, and relationships with others in the movement, especially "known communists." 

Time for a reality check.

Dealing with the chief inquisitor

In 1957, the biggest media coup you could score was having your face appear on the cover of Time magazine, America’s most-read newsweekly. The Reverend M.L. King of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, earned this honor for his role as leader of Montgomery’s successful year-long bus boycott.

Time’s cover story was highly sympathetic, and from the moment it appeared, “the mantle of fame fell ever more personally on King,” wrote historian Taylor Branch.

Days later came the call from Lawrence E. Spivak, the co-creator and power broker of "Meet the Press," who wanted Dr. King on the show as soon as possible.

TV news was tiny compared to what it would become — the networks’ evening newscasts were just 15 minutes long — but by 1957 Spivak was already a powerful figure thanks to “Meet the Press,” which he co-created along with journalist Martha Rountree. 

In the show's original format, the moderator (Rountree) had a minimal role. All the questions came from the four-person reporters’ panel. That was where Spivak inserted himself. Even though he was not a reporter, he became the show's chief inquisitor and best-known personality, if not its best-loved.

“The childish petulance of Mr. Spivak can be frightfully tiresome,” the New York Times’ trenchant TV critic Jack Gould wrote. “In interviewing prominent figures in the news he is obviously much beyond his ken.”

Spivak didn’t care what critics thought of his abrasive manner, as long as the title of his program was showing up in Monday morning’s newspapers.

“There have been years when ‘Meet the Press’ made front-page news as frequently as forty weeks out of fifty-two,” he boasted in 1960.

By February 1957, Spivak had become a force to be reckoned with in Washington. So when he called Dr. King to ask if he would like to be the second-ever African-American on “Meet the Press” (Roy Wilkins of the NAACP had been the first), he expected the young minister to be flattered by the offer.

If Dr. King was flattered, he didn’t show it.

He promised Spivak that he’d clear a date on his calendar, but he never did. It took three years to get Dr. King on “Meet the Press,” and when he finally appeared, Spivak — perhaps peeved about the long delay — did not play the gracious host.

‘Aren’t sit-ins doing more harm than good?’

That appearance, on April 17, 1960, came as students were staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Dr. King spent the show fending off hostile questions, like this one from Spivak:

“Harry Truman recently said this, and I quote, ‘If anyone came to my store and sat down, I would throw him out. Private business has its own rights and can do what it wants.’ Now, former President Truman is an old friend of the Negro, I believe. Isn’t this an indication that the sit-in strikes are doing the race, the Negro race, more harm than good?”

May Craig, Gannett's Washington correspondent, was even more patronizing: “Dr. King, this is a nation that lives under law. Above the Supreme Court is engraved, ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ Are each of us to decide when it’s all right to break a law?”

Dr. King tried to explain that “sometimes it is necessary to dramatize an issue because many people are not aware of what is happening.” Indeed, no one on this clueless panel seemed aware that black people had been systematically denied access to public facilities and the ballot for decades because of laws passed throughout the Jim Crow South.

‘Dumbfounded, then sputtering rage’

Two more years passed before Dr. King was invited back on the show. This time, he didn’t stonewall Spivak. He turned him down flat.

It was July 1962, and Dr. King had joined student activists in Albany, Georgia, for civil disobedience. On Friday, July 27, he was arrested and thrown in jail. Frustrated by the lack of progress in Albany, Dr. King decided he could attract more media attention from inside his cell than outside. (He would use this tactic to historic effect in Birmingham in 1964.)

Spivak had already booked Dr. King for that Sunday’s broadcast of “Meet the Press.” When he got word that his star guest was locked up, he placed a frantic call to Albany. According to Taylor Branch, Spivak “was at first dumbfounded, then provoked to a sputtering rage” at King's decision not to be bailed out.

“Most public figures begged for the chance to appear on the most prestigious network interview show, and Spivak did not relish being turned down in favor of a jail cell,” Branch wrote.

His wrath was apparent the next time Dr. King came on the show, in August 1963. Spivak booked him and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins to preview the upcoming March on Washington. Spivak then directed all seven of his questions to Wilkins.

The hostility was especially palpable in this broadcast. With the dignified exception of NBC's Robert MacNeil, the panel obsessed over what they saw as a coming Negro apocalypse.

"Mr. Wilkins," Spivak declared, "there are a great many people, as I am sure you know, who believe it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting.” Whoever those "great many people" were, they were mistaken.

‘Have communists infiltrated the movement?’

In 1964 Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize. He now stood on the world stage. Yet it would be nearly two and a half years before he appeared again on "Meet the Press."

It came after the "Bloody Sunday" attack on Dr. King and other peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. The images had shocked the country, and suddenly “Meet the Press” was desperate to have the Nobel laureate on the show. He was scheduled to preach in San Francisco that weekend, but NBC arranged for him to be interviewed by satellite.

Spivak being Spivak, he put a noted defender of segregation on the panel, Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist James J. Kilpatrick, who had debated Dr. King in 1960 over the legitimacy of the movement.

While Kilpatrick played to the states-rights crowd, Spivak bore in on another subject popular with white conservatives. 

“Dr. King," he asked, "have communists infiltrated the movement?”

The philosophical undergirdings of our movement would make communism impossible," Dr. King calmly replied, since the civil rights movement, unlike communism, was "based on a philosophy of nonviolence.”

‘I refuse to despair in this moment’

For his fourth appearance on “Meet the Press” Dr. King had company — lots of it.

This 90-minute special edition on Aug. 21, 1966, placed him on a panel of five civil rights leaders, apparently arranged from oldest to youngest. That's Dr. King speaking from the back bench with Stokely Carmichael and James Meredith.

MLK on Meet the Press special 1966 - back row

But after that appearance ... something happened. Dr. King returned to "Meet the Press" on Aug. 13, 1967, for a discussion that was noticeably different in its tone and content. 

He had gone in expecting to be grilled about recent statements from H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, who represented the movement’s black-power wing. Instead, Spivak started with an open-ended question about Dr. King and  the Vietnam War.

“You said that if the war in Vietnam is escalated it may be necessary to engage in civil disobedience,” asked Spivak. “What did you mean by that?”

Dr. King, who had been struggling to call attention to his anti-war stance, clearly welcomed the question.

“I meant that if the war continued and if it was escalated, if it continued to pervade the life of our nation in terms of poisoning much of its soul, it would be necessary for thousands of people who found that war abominable to engage in acts that would arouse the conscience of the nation,” Dr. King replied. “This war is destroying so much of what we hold dear.”

Also on the panel was Simeon Booker, longtime reporter for Jet magazine. It was a striking contrast from just two years earlier, when Spivak had put a states-rights Southerner on the panel.

Booker asked Dr. King the program’s most powerful question, and got the most remarkable answer.

“Dr. King,” he asked, “do you believe that the American racial problem can be solved?”

“Yes, I do,” came the reply. Dr. King continued,

“I refuse to despair in this moment. I refuse to allow myself to fall into the dark chambers of pessimism, because I think in any social revolution the one thing that keeps it going is hope, and when hope dies somehow the revolution degenerates into a kind of nihilistic philosophy which says you must engage in disruption for disruption’s sake. ... I believe that the forces of goodwill, white and black, in this country can work together to bring about a resolution of this problem. We have the resources to do it. At present we don't have the will.” MLK on “Meet the Press,” 8/13/1967

By far this was the most cordial and substantive of any of Dr. King’s encounters on “Meet the Press.” And it would be his last.

The news is there to engage you, not inform you

Years later, Lawrence E. Spivak claimed that Martin Luther King Jr. was the most impressive guest he had ever interviewed on “Meet the Press.” They love you when you're dead.

MLK with Lawrence Spivak - 1967

While it's easy to condemn Spivak's treatment of MLK during the 1960s, the fact is that he simply reflected the audience that watched him week after week. If Spivak's questions were condescending, patronizing, vaguely racist, and generally clueless, that’s where a lot of his viewers were regarding race in the 1950s and ’60s.

And that leads to this important takeaway that everyone should bear in mind whenever turning on the TV or radio, or firing up a news site or podcast.

The news business does not exist to inform you.

It does inform you, of course, but it primarily exists to engage with you. And then sell that engagement to sponsors and underwriters. And in the history of political TV, nobody did that better than Lawrence E. Spivak.

Are you reminded of a certain social media platform when I say "sell your engagement to sponsors"? That’s because nothing in media has really changed in the years since Dr. King appeared on “Meet the Press.” 

Except, of course, that they love him now.

Dig deeper

Here’s an annotated summary of those five appearances by Martin Luther King Jr. on “MTP.” Here are transcripts from 1960, 1963, 1965, 1966, and 1967. I don't understand why NBC News only makes the '65 interview available.

Dr. King's prophetic speech on Vietnam is still great.

Whenever we think about MLK, we should remember the words of his sister, that he was “an ordinary and average man.”

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