Barbara Walters is a good example of how women in the U.S. are getting better jobs and getting ahead.
Walters, who passed away on Friday at the age of 93, made her television debut on “The Today Show” in 1961 as a glorified morning model nicknamed, without sarcasm, “The Today Girl.” She left it almost 50 years later as one of television’s most dominant figures of either sex.
The path was not smooth; it was littered with potholes and wrong turns. But her actions paved the way for other women to follow.
This is, after all, the woman who basically created the “big get” interview, and she didn’t get there without benefit of substantial quantities of ambition, persistence, drive, and competitive fire. It’s also impossible to succeed without making some friends and enemies along the road.
It takes a certain amount of ability, skill, and intelligence to succeed in this world, at least enough to outsmart societal norms and your own weaknesses. With her unconventional lifestyle and several marriages, she was never a typical TV starlet.
However, for many years, having an interview with Walters was seen as both a badge of honor and a prerequisite for many high-profile positions.
It’s understandable if you got the impression that Walters looked down on celebrities who seemed to enjoy rapid rise to popularity only to waste it with careless abandon. At every turn, Walters had to fight off male executives and coworkers who felt a woman’s place on television was hosting food segments or interviewing the president of the local gardening club in order to further her career.
In every situation, Walters demanded and received an increase. Even while she was working as a news writer off camera for CBS’ and then NBC’s “Morning Show” and “Today,” she longed to be in front of the camera. Having broken through in 1961 as the iconic “Today Girl,” she aspired to be taken seriously as a journalist and was rewarded with the historic opportunity to travel to India and Pakistan with First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Her career as a reporter was short-lived since she always aspired to join the broadcast team as a co-host. Also, it wasn’t satisfactory for her to serve as a de facto co-host but be told she had to wait until the guys were done before asking any questions. She had her sights set on becoming the first woman to hold the official title at “Today,” and she finally achieved that goal in 1974.
She was the first woman to anchor a network nightly broadcast when she took over the “ABC Evening News” in 1976. Her co-anchor, Harry Reasoner, didn’t want her there and made no attempt to disguise his unhappiness, thus it turned out to be too much, at least for the times. Two years later, she was let go, which would have been enough to dissuade a less dogged worker.
Actually, Walters did rather well. She appeared to have a huge, instinctive confidence in her ability to talk to anybody about anything (a belief she stated in her first, best-selling book), and she put that confidence to use in a groundbreaking series of interviews, both on “20/20” and in her own specials.
Walters’ “gets” included anything from the first American network television interview with President Nixon following his resignation to the most-watched interview of all time, a sit-down with Monica Lewinsky that attracted more than 48 million people in the U.S.
That’s why everybody was chatting it up with Walters. Perhaps it was because they knew they would be dealing with a skilled negotiator, but it might also have been because they sensed an even playing field. Walters frequently questioned and prodded in an attempt to find an emotional weak point.
However, she had done extensive research on her topic, which was generally well received by her interviewees. Although she had an uncanny ability to manipulate her subjects (with an insatiable need to see them in tears), she was never malicious. Guests on the Barbara Walters Show were usually eager to go wherever the topic went, so it was rare to come away from an interview with them feeling that they’d been led astray or duped.
Naturally, when exploring uncharted territory, everyone trips over their own feet occasionally. Actress Katharine Hepburn was famously asked, “What type of tree would you be?” after comparing herself to a tree; while this was meant as a follow-up to Hepburn’s original comment, it was nonetheless an inane line of inquiry.
When she started the daytime talk program “The View” in 1997, she occasionally came out as cruel to her co-stars, and her inability to be forthright about her age felt like a remnant from the “Today Girl” period she helped demolish.
Maybe the next great newswoman will be the one to change it. It was unreasonable to expect Walters to shoulder all of the responsibilities. In itself, what she achieved was already impressive.