Walters, Barbara (1931—)
Walters, Barbara (1931—)
About her career as a television newswoman and interviewer, first lady of the news Barbara Walters has said, "I was the kind nobody thought could make it. I had a funny Boston accent. I couldn't pronounce my Rs. I wasn't a beauty." Walters did make it, even in the often superficial, looks-obsessed world of network television. Partially as a result of attempting to make it at the right time in history—the feminist movement of the early 1970s was gaining strength—Walters not only made a place for herself in television news, but also changed the way the news was presented on television.
Barbara Walters was born, however unwillingly, into show business. Her father, Lou, was a nightclub owner who ran the Latin Quarter, a chain of popular clubs in New York, Boston, and Florida. Though celebrities were a part of her everyday life growing up, the girl who was to become a nightly visitor in the homes of millions of Americans wanted nothing more than to be "normal." But that was denied her when her father suddenly went bankrupt and suffered a heart attack. In her yearbook from Sarah Lawrence College, Walters is pictured in a cartoon as an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand, but she was forced to face the world early. To help her parents and developmentally disabled sister out of their financial troubles, she went to work, first as a secretary, then as a writer on such television shows as Jack Paar and The Dick Van Dyke Show. In 1961, she got a job as a writer/researcher for the Today Show, and in 1964 she moved in front of the camera when she was promoted to "Today girl," a title reflecting the sexist atmosphere prevailing in television at the time. But sexism notwithstanding, Walters was on her way to being a serious television journalist. In 1972, when President Nixon changed U.S. policy and paid an official visit to the People's Republic of China for the first time since their revolution, Barbara Walters was the only woman to cover that trip.
She continued to make history and created a buzz of controversy in 1976 when ABC signed her to a five-year contract for $1 million per year. She was given the job of co-anchor on the nightly news, sitting at the desk with longtime television news man Harry Reasoner. The industry and the country were shocked at the idea of a woman receiving so much money—twice the salary of venerable CBS news legend Walter Cronkite. When Walters went to work as the first woman to anchor the evening news, she encountered ridicule, dismissive attitudes, and outright hostility. Reasoner himself was not happy to be working with her and let it show. Time magazine dubbed Walters the "Most Appalling Argument for Feminism." Even when she proved her journalistic skills by hosting the first joint interview with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, viewers just did not seem to respond to her. The flagging ABC news ratings did not rise, and Walters was removed from the news desk in 1979 and given a new job—correspondent on the news magazine show 20/20.
Walters soon rose to co-host 20/20 with Hugh Downs, and the show expanded from Friday nights to air editions on Wednesday and Sunday nights as well. Sunday nights she co-hosted with Diane Sawyer, another pioneering woman television journalist. In an industry that is more likely to capitalize on competition among women for high-visibility positions, the pairing of the two female anchors was unusual and refreshing.
Though her credentials as a newswoman are impressive, it is as an interviewer that Walters will be remembered. She has created more than sixty "Barbara Walters Specials" and "Most Fascinating People" shows, which aired at prime audience-grabbing times, such as following the Academy Awards show and on New Year's Eve. In each special she interviews several celebrities and over the years has delved into the personal lives of political figures, timeless icons of entertainment, and "flashes in the pan." Her interviews have become such a television standard that it is not clear whether Barbara Walters interviews those who have "made it," or whether one has not really "made it" until one has been interviewed by Walters. The interviews are incisive and revealing. Bill Geddie, producer of the Walters specials, says of her, "She has a way that has matured over the years of getting people to say things on the air that they never thought they were going to say." Walters herself attributes much of her success as an interviewer to her devotion to her disabled sister, Jacqueline. Growing up so close to the difficulties her sister faced gave her an empathy and compassion she was able to use throughout her career.
In 1997, Walters branched out into another television standard—the talk show. Following her introduction "I've always wanted to do a show with women who have very different views… " The View introduced a new format—the multi-host talk show. Co-hosts journalist Meredith Viera, lawyer Star Jones, comic Joy Behar, and model Debbie Matenopoulos are occasionally joined by Walters for the usual talk show fare: a few celebrities, a few writers of self-help books, and some lightweight chat about current newsmaking events. The View is advertised by Walters as "Four women, lots of opinions, and me—Barbara Walters." Though one suspects that Walters's separation of herself from the "four women" is not accidental, on The View she is looser and more relaxed—called "B.W." by her colleagues and allowing herself to be teased and, occasionally, put on the spot.
Walters's distinctive style has often been parodied with a ruthlessness that indicates what an icon she herself has become. Probably the most famous send-up was performed by the late Gilda Radner on the early Saturday Night Live show. With stiffly flipped hair and exaggerated lisp, Radner's "Barbara Wawa" became almost as familiar to viewers as Walters herself. Later SNL crews also have parodied Walters's The View. Though hurt by the mockery at first, Walters soon learned that it was a measure of her own popularity, and she even invited the SNL cast to perform their parody on an April Fool's edition of The View.
While satire is a tribute on one hand, Walters does have her critics. She has been called aggressive and overbearing, common criticisms of women successful in male-dominated businesses, and some have questioned her tactics for getting interviews. Many have criticized her for confusing news and entertainment. A standing joke in the industry revolves around her "touchy-feely" interviewing style, falsely attributing to her the question "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" In 1981, during an interview with actress Katharine Hepburn, Hepburn herself stated that at that point in her life she felt like a tree. Following her thought, Walters asked, "What kind of tree are you?" Hepburn responded that she felt like an oak, and the question moved forever into the archive of jokes about Walters.
Barbara Walters will be remembered for many "firsts" and "onlys." Her critics blame her for bringing too much entertainment into the news, but, for better or worse, she has been pivotal in creating the face of television news in the 1990s, a blend of fact, entertainment, and personality. There is no doubt that every woman in television news owes a debt to the girl whose college yearbook pictured her as an ostrich but who could not keep her head in the sand. Walters does not glamorize herself or her contributions, "I was frustrated and tenacious," she says, "and that's a powerful combination."
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Remstein, Henna. Barbara Walters. Philadelphia, Chelsea House, 1999.