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Posted at 12:19 PM ET, 02/17/2011

Ex-'Meet the Press' moderator Bill Monroe dies

By Emma Brown
Emma Brown

Bill Monroe, a Washington journalist best known for moderating the NBC Sunday talk show "Meet the Press" during the 1970s and '80s, died this morning at a nursing home in Potomac. He was 90.

Founded on television in 1947, "Meet the Press" is one of the longest-running programs in American broadcast history. Mr. Monroe, a vet­eran print and radio reporter who joined NBC in 1961, appeared frequently as a panelist before he was tapped as moderator in 1975.

He succeeded Lawrence Spivak, the program's co-creator, and was followed by journalists such as Garrick Utley and Tim Russert.


Mr. Monroe led the show for nine years, interviewing public figures from the worlds of economics, politics and international affairs. He was known as a "forceful but fair questioner," according to Time magazine; "highly respected but not highly feared," wrote Newsday television critic Verne Gay.

He broke news, too: President Jimmy Carter announced on the show that the United States would boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

But one of the more memorable moments of Mr. Monroe's career as a moderator had less to do with hard-boiled policy discussions than with the impromptu comedy of live television.

He was interviewing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on a satellite broadcast when Begin's earpiece malfunctioned. The prime minister was given a replacement that allowed him to hear producers' behind-the-scenes chatter.

As the interview drew to a close, Begin heard a voice bark a command meant for Mr. Monroe: "Say goodbye." Begin, confused, repeated the statement as if asking a question: "Say goodbye?"

Begin "was a bit annoyed," recalled longtime executive producer Betty Dukert. "Bill laughed about it forever."

William Blanc Monroe Jr. was born July 17, 1920, in New Orleans. He cut his teeth as a reporter covering the Civil Rights movement and struggles over school desegregation in his hometown.

When the celebrated jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong came to town, Mr. Monroe tracked the musician down and interviewed him while he shaved in a shabby rented room.

"As a reporter I did not editorialize," Mr. Monroe later recalled. "But I did explain to listeners the circumstances of the interview by the corner washstand, and Orleanians could ponder the fact that the world famous Louis Armstrong couldn't get into any of the big hotels in his own hometown."

He wrote some of the first editorials aired by New Orleans's NBC affiliate, often calling for residents to meet racial integration with calm instead of violence. NBC noticed his efforts and brought him to Washington in 1961 as news bureau chief. He later became Washington editor of the "Today" show and won a prestigious Peabody award for his work.

In a statement, NBC News president Steve Capus said Mr. Monroe had made "countless and considerable" contributions to the network. "His courage in covering the civil rights movement, and his groundbreaking interviews with the newsmakers of his time puts Bill as one of our nation's preeminent journalists. He was a true crusader."

Throughout his career, Mr. Monroe was known as a critic of the Federal Communications Commission's regulation of broadcast media -- a first step, he said, toward abridging the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and free press.

After leaving "Meet the Press" in 1984, he continued at NBC with its flagship "Today" show for three years. He then served as the editor of the old Washington Journalism Review and twice as ombudsman for the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

Below is a speech Mr. Monroe gave at his alma mater, Tulane. A full obituary will be posted shortly.

This post has been updated.

By Emma Brown  | February 17, 2011; 12:19 PM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown, Washington DC-area people  
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