Barbara Walters: An appreciation of the woman who revolutionized TV
Barbara Walters, who died Friday at 93, revolutionized morning TV, the newsmagazine show and daytime talk show. An ill-fated stint as ABC's “Evening News” anchor nevertheless set a precedent for Diane Sawyer, Connie Chung, Katie Couric and Norah O'Donnell. Her "Barbara Walters Interview" later became a late-20th century "meta news event," which either seemed to canonize or humanize its subject.
To be part of a Walters pre-Oscar special was to nearly have won an Oscar itself. To be anointed "Most Fascinating" was to, indeed, be fascinating (even if you were not fascinating at all).
Her last producer, Bill Geddie, of "The View," once said of the daytime hit she created in 1997, "It was her chance to prove that she was an innovator."
But of course, by that time, it seemed as if she had innovated half of U.S. TV journalism.
Less visible, but in some ways the most visible accomplishment of all, was that role as trailblazer. While she did not consciously set out to blaze anybody's trail other than her own, she knew that her success would pave the way for other women.
"She had to pay her dues so that no one else had to," said Rick Kaplan, former CNN/U.S. chief and a longtime producer with Walters at ABC News, upon her retirement from “The View” in 2014.
Walters was also a lightning rod, who critics said had demolished the line that was supposed to divide "celebrity news" from "hard news." Her interview style was celebrated and famously parodied (on "SNL" — where else?) She after all had once asked Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she'd like to be (an unfair rap against Walters, who was only following up a point Hepburn had made).
But she was easily the most facile interviewer in the history of television news, who made news with newsmakers — from Anwar Sadat to Richard Nixon to Fidel Castro — and adroitly handled Hollywood stars, many whose fame she easily eclipsed.
Nevertheless, she insisted that her most memorable interview was with Port Washington native Robert Smithdas. Smithdas, who had been blind and almost completely deaf since the age of 4, was director of Sands Point-based Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. He died in 2014 at 89.
Walters was also driven by an innate need to work, initially by an expectation that she would need to support her sister, Jacqueline. But a childhood in the uncertain shadow of a father, nightclub impresario Lou Walters, who was in and out of work, also enforced that work ethic. Creator of Manhattan's the famed Latin Quarter, he went through various boom-and-bust cycles — mostly bust — and his daughter would invariably bail him out.
But Walters' older sister, Jacqueline — who died in 1985 — was perhaps more of a catalyst. Of "Jackie," who was mentally disabled, Walters would say that she loved her, was ashamed of her, angered by her and fiercely protective of her.
In 1961, she joined "Today," where female contributors were referred to as "'Today' girls," or "tea-pourers," as Walters called them. From the beginning she wasn't destined to pour anyone's tea.
The show had hired actor Maureen O'Sullivan to work alongside host Hugh Downs. But after she left Walters pushed for more airtime, and got it, usually by working alongside Downs, on the condition that he got to ask the first questions of an interview subject and then — only then — could Walters ask one.
When Downs was replaced by Frank McGee in 1971, Walters — by then a bona fide star — secured two key provisions. First, if McGee left, she would be "co-host." Second, if she landed her own interview, she would be the one asking the questions.
The biggest break came in 1972, when she went to China with President Richard Nixon. Richard Wald, the former NBC News president who died in 2022, once recalled: "The assignment got a lot of blowback from a lot of people who were literally the senior correspondents of NBC News because she was not considered 'a serious person.' But Barbara got there and outworked everyone else feeding stories to 'Nightly News' and 'Today,' and was also finding stories no one else was finding. She did just one hell of a smashup job, came back and then the tone of the critics changed."
In 1976, she was tapped to become Harry Reasoner's co-anchor at ABC's faltering evening news program. There was vast press coverage of her $1 million salary, the highest in TV news, although almost as controversial was the innovation ABC crafted: Half of that salary would be paid by the entertainment division, which expected four non-news specials from her a year.
Walters had to chase world leaders but also box office stars. Suddenly, the idea of the "TV anchor" was radically transformed and not necessarily for the better.
The "ABC Evening News," with Reasoner and Walters, was an immediate disaster. Reasoner was resentful of her presence and she was ill-suited to the cosseted job of reading the news. ABC News President Roone Arledge helped salvage her career by breaking up the team, and then, in 1979, bringing her to a faltering "20/20," hosted by Downs, her old friend and colleague.
Arledge admiringly called Walters "a Gibraltar of bland congeniality in a fad-tossed television sea." Walters was anything but: At "20/20," she redefined TV news by embracing lifestyle and celebrity coverage along with other traditionally non-news topics. Her near quarter-century run there was a vast success, culminating with the Monica Lewinsky interview of March 3, 1999, seen by 70 million viewers.
She then sought a new challenge, which would become "The View." This was her "chance to be a little lighter, a little more personal," she told Newsday at launch in 1997.
"The View" has ranged from the ridiculous to the serious, and yet in the ephemeral, 24-hour news cycle that has come to dominate the flow of public information over its run, the show managed something utterly inconceivable at launch: It made news about itself. This show, improbably, was to become Walters' magnum opus, and a major, much-copied hit.
After that brief run at "Evening News," Walters said that failure on that order of magnitude helped her realize her long career "wasn't all luck."
Indeed, luck had nothing to do it. Tenacity and talent are the better words.