Barbara Walters, the trailblazing television news broadcaster and longtime news anchor anchor, who became influential force in an industry once dominated by men, passed away on Friday, December 30, 2022. She was 93.
An Iconic Career
Walters’ interviews were a television institution, topping the ratings and prompting watercooler conversations for decades. Barbara Walters' interviews were a landmark in the entertainment industry, signifying that a celebrity had "made it" and provided the perfect platform to redeem themselves after getting into trouble. It was an indispensable part of any successful career. Walters was renowned for her interviews with a wide variety of personalities from entertainers to Heads of State from around the globe. Among her most notable celebrity interview subjects were Katharine Hepburn, Michael Jackson, to World-leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Yeltsin, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro – not to mention every U.S. president since Richard Nixon. Just to name a few.
Walters' rise to journalistic greatness was aided by her resilience and friendly demeanor. Undeterred by the dominance of men in the industry, she used her determination to break through barriers and also build trust with people she interviewed, which made it easier for her to get candid stories. Producer Stuart Schulberg praised Walters for her caring attitude towards her subjects, in a Newsweek interview, he quoted that she would never interrogate someone or ask an unfair or intrusive question. This level of respect allowed many famous personalities to express their feelings more freely with Walters in interviews.
Her Early Life
Walters was fortunate enough to receive a star-studded upbringing, which in turn enabled her to feel relaxed and comfortable around celebrities. Born Sept. 25, 1929, in Boston, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of a showbiz promoter who opened New York City’s glitzy Latin Quarter nightclub and produced the “Ziegfeld Follies” on Broadway. Young Walters would watch shows from the wings, and she grew up surrounded by performers.
Walters' indomitable spirit shined when her family encountered a financial setback, when her Father’s business began to fail. She not only rose to the challenge of providing for them, but also developed an unwavering work ethic that lasted well beyond her normal retirement age.
After burnishing her work ethic while still in her teens, Walters made her way to Sarah Lawrence College, then started working as a writer for an ad agency and a public relations firm. In 1955, she got a great opportunity to begin her writing career for the CBS program “Good Morning," which allowed her to gain valuable insights under Andy Rooney's leadership. By 1961, she had moved on to a writer & researcher role at NBC’s prolific show “Today,” signifying the fulfillment of all her dreams.
Her Journalism Career Begins
On “Today,” Walters soon debuted on the other side of the camera as the “Today Girl,” an on-air personality who handled lightweight stories about inconsequential subjects. It was not a hard-hitting assignment, and Walters would come to call the Today Girls and their fluffy segments “tea-pourers.” Determined to do more with her career, Walters began taking on bigger stories. By 1974, she received a promotion to co-host.
That position was one she had to claw her way to – and it couldn’t happen until the death of former host Frank McGee, who unilaterally refused to do any interview with Walters as co-interviewer. He was not the only one who underestimated women's capacity to report news in an accurate and professional manner.
Barbara, a Journalism Pioneer
Walters would make a much-lauded move to ABC in 1976 to co-host the “ABC Evening News” with Harry Reasoner. She was considered a trailblazer, making new strides for women in broadcasting, but she found herself saddled with another partner that didn’t respect her as a newswoman. Reasoner didn’t like working with her, and it showed in the pair’s woeful lack of chemistry. In an interview with Vogue, Walters recounted her experience with Cronkite and how he didn't want to have a partner in the first place, let alone one that was a woman and had been trained in television. He was extremely hostile towards her on-air as well as off-air and she felt like a total failure after the initial broadcast. Despite all of this, she persevered and eventually became one of the most respected broadcast journalists of our time. Harry didn’t talk to me in the studio; the stagehands didn’t talk to me. They were all Harry’s people.”
Walters only remained on the “ABC Evening News” for two years, but her next job was to be a long-term one: She signed on with “20/20” in 1979, remaining there until 2004. In 1984, she became co-anchor alongside Hugh Downs (1921 – 2020), and when he retired in 1999, she became the show’s sole anchor. When Walters announced her semi-retirement in 2004, it didn’t entirely end her work with “20/20” – she continued to contribute from time to time.
Also still on her plate post-retirement was “The View,” which Walters created in 1997 as a medium for women of all backgrounds to weigh in on a variety of topics. From the beginning, the concept included Walters only as a part-time on-air star: A panel of regulars would be there daily, while Walters would join them on some days. She was a dedicated co-host of the show right up until 2014 and even after that, she appeared in it occasionally. Her hard work and dedication is commendable as she continued to be the part-time co-host of the show until her retirement.
Walters was widely honored in the entertainment history, earning three Emmy awards – one for “Today” and two for “The View” – as well as a slew of nominations. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is a member of the Television Hall of Fame.
One of the World’s Most Fascinating People
Beginning in 1993, Walters produced an annual special, “Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People.” Her insightful biographies on influential newsmakers combined with interview clips made her work stand out that year. The always-anticipated special built excitement by releasing some names in advance, but keeping the No. 1 “Most Fascinating” under wraps until broadcast time.
Although her career encompassed multiple aspects as she worked on a broad range of programs, it is her interviews for which she is most recognized and remembered. She conducted interviews with a wide range of people, from famous pop stars to esteemed world leaders, from the newsmakers of the moment to the all-time great performers. Their soundbites and tearful moments placed the interviews among the most-watched television interviews of all time. Here are a few that stood out:
Monica Lewinsky: Walters got the scoop on Lewinsky as the first reporter to interview her after her much-publicized sex scandal with President Bill Clinton. The interview was a home run for Walters, widely watched by viewers everywhere.
She got Lewinsky’s side of the story as she elicited some quotes for the ages – among them, the interview’s closing lines. Walters asked, “What will you tell your children, when you have them?” And at Lewinsky’s reply, “Mommy made a big mistake,” Walters let her subject fade to black, knowing Lewinsky had made, as she stated in her closer, “the understatement of the year.”
Vladimir Putin: The Russian leader was not well-known to most U.S. citizens when Walters interviewed him back in 2001.
She sought to shine a light on him as she questioned him just as she would any other subject … though she saved a tricky question for last, worried he might end the interview if she asked it earlier: “Mr. Putin, did you ever kill anybody?” She noted that she found his answer strange: “No, because that wasn’t in my area.”
Katharine Hepburn: Walters’ interview with Hepburn has long been held up as an example of a goofy interview with weird, softball questions, but that’s an impression based on an incomplete viewing of their conversation. “What kind of tree are you, if you think you’re a tree?” Indeed, it was a weird question, but it didn’t come out of left field, as it has since been portrayed. In fact, Hepburn had just compared herself to a tree. Walters merely ran with it. The media made merciless fun of her, and she later said she regretted asking the question.
Fidel Castro: Walters broke new ground in 1977 when she interviewed the Cuban dictator after two years of trying to get the interview. She proceeded to spend five hours questioning him about all manner of topics, including the news making U.S. embargo. Although, the interview covered softer topics as well.
Walters famously found Castro to be charming, funny, and charismatic, and was able to bring these personality traits out on camera in only a way she could. For the first time in Cuban television history, the interview was broadcast in its entirety.
A Good Listener
Whether Walters was covering serious political topics or learning dance moves, as she did when she interviewed the pop star Justin Bieber, she was known for her empathetic listening. It drew her subjects out, prompting them to confess things they might not have revealed to other interviewers. She told Vogue, “I don’t love everybody, but I put my personal feelings aside when I’m working.” It showed, and it got results.
Walters’ great fame led to much fascination with her private life, particularly her romantic relationships. She was married four times to three men, remarrying third husband Merv Adelson a few years after their first divorce. After they divorced a second time in 1992, Walters didn’t marry again, though she was romantically linked to U.S. Sen. John Warner. Earlier relationships with powerful men included a 1970s turn with former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and an extramarital affair with U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke.
Walters shared details of her romantic life with Vogue., “I just wasn’t very good at marriage. I’ve been friendly with almost everyone I have been involved with. It’s nice to have somebody to go to a dinner with, so that you’re not that extra woman, but that’s not enough reason to stay married.”
Walters had a very fulfilling life and experienced many meaningful relationships. But out of it all, she only had one child - Jacqueline whom she adopted with Lee Guber after having a few miscarriages. Fortunately, her daughter is still alive today. In an interview with Piers Morgan in 2014, Walters confided, “I regret not having more children.” Yet she reminded us in a 1999 interview with Vanity Fair that it has never been easy for a woman to have a career like hers and a family as well. With that in mind, once she was on top on TV programs like “20/20” and “The View,” she made it a point to support the other women on staff in their efforts to balance work and family life.
Walters on How She Succeeded
“Work harder than everybody. You’re not going to get it by whining, and you’re not going to get it by shouting, and you’re not going to get it by quitting. You’re going to get it by being there.” – from a 2000 interview with the Television Academy Foundation.
Walters leaves a legacy of inspiration and courage. She set a bar that generations of journalist and media professionals will aspire to reach for years to come. Forever missed and never forgotten.
I’m Ehren Muhammad,