WALTERS, BARBARA

U.S. Broadcast Journalist

Although Barbara Walters would later downplay her relationship with the feminist movement, her early career is marked by a number of moves that were in part responsible for breaking down the all-male facade of U.S. network news. A Today Show regular for 15 years, including two years as the show's first official female co-host, she was a visible presence in, at first, the program's "feature" segments, then going on to covering "hard news"--including serving as part of the NBC News team sent to cover President Richard Nixon's historic visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972. Her most controversial "first" involved her decision in 1976 to leave Today to co-anchor the ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner (the first time a woman was allowed the privileged position of network evening anchor) for a record-breaking seven-figure salary. Public reaction to both her salary and approach to the news, which critics claimed led to the creeping "Infotainment" mentality which threatens traditional (male) reporting, undercut ABC News ratings, and she was quickly bumped from the anchor desk.

After this public relations disaster, Walters undertook a comeback on ABC with The Barbara Walters Specials, an occasional series of interviews with heads of state, newsmakers, sports figures and Hollywood celebrities that have consistently topped the ratings and made news in themselves. In 1977, she arranged the first joint interview with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin; she has since interviewed six U.S. Presidents, as well as political figures as diverse as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, U.S. presidential contender Ross Perot, and Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. In 1984, ABC returned her to an anchor desk as co-host (with Hugh Downs) of the newsmagazine 20/20.

Despite her status as both national celebrity and the recipient of numerous awards from journalists, television broadcasters and women's groups, public reaction to Walters has remained ambivalent, perhaps as a result of changing notions of the nature of "news" in the television era. Walters's interviews have not been limited to figures embroiled in the matters covered by "hard news" subjects like politics and war; many of her more popular specials (and 20/20 segments) have been celebrity interviews and chats with more tawdry news figures. Certain memorable moments--such as the time she asked actress Katherine Hepburn what kind of tree she would like to be--have worked to undercut her image as a serious journalist. And the late Gilda Radner's classic parody of Walters's distinctive style as "Baba Wawa" on Saturday Night Live remains popular as a timeless critique of the cult of personality in television journalism.

Walters began her career in broadcast journalism as a writer for CBS News. She also served as the youngest producer with NBC's New York station, WNBC-TV, before joining Today. After less than a year as a writer for Today, she was promoted to reporter-at-large (or, as then-host Hugh Downs described her, "the new 'Today girl'"), although gender politics at the time severely constrained her role. According to Walters, she was not allowed to write for the male correspondents or to ask questions in "male-dominated" areas such as economics or politics, and she was forbidden to interview guests on-camera until all of the men on Today had finished asking questions. Thanks in part to Walters's contributions, these commandments no longer apply.

-Susan McLeland


Barbara Walters
Photo courtesy of Barbara Walters

BARBARA WALTERS. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 25 September 1931. Educated at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, B.A. in English, 1953. Married: 1) Robert Katz (annulled), children: Jacquieline Dena; 2) Lee Guber, 1963 (divorced, 1976); 3) Merv Adelson, 1986 (divorced, 1992). Worked as a secretary at an advertising agency; assistant to the publicity director, NBC's WRCA-TV, New York; producer and writer, WRCA; writer and producer, WPIX Radio and CBS-TV; worked for a theatrical public- relations firm; hired for NBC's Today show, 1961; regular panel member, 1964-74; co-host, 1974-76; moderator of the syndicated program Not For Women Only, 1974-76; newscaster, the ABC Evening News, 1976-78; host,The Barbara Walters Special, since 1976; co-host, ABC-TV news show 20/20, since 1979. L.H.D.: Ohio State University, 1971, Marymount College, 1975, and Wheaton College, 1983. Recipient: National Association of Television Program Executives Award, 1975; International Radio and Television Society's Broadcaster of the Year, 1975; Emmy Awards, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1983; Lowell Thomas Award, 1990; International Women's Media Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame, 1990. Address: 20/20, 147 Columbus Avenue, 10th Floor, New York, New York 10023, U.S.A.

TELEVISION

1961-76 Today Show (co-host from 1974-76)
1974-76 Not For Women Only
1976-78 ABC Evening News (co-anchor)
1976- The Barbara Walters Specials
1979- 20/20

RADIO

Emphasis, early 1970s; Moderator, early 1970s.

PUBLICATIONS

How to Talk to Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

FURTHER READING

Carter, Bill. "Tender Trap." The New York Times Magazine, 23 August 1992.

Gelfman, Judith S. Women in Television News. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Gottleib, Martin. "Dangerous Liaisons: Journalists and Their Sources." Columbia Journalism Review (New York), July-August, 1989.

Miller, Mark Crispin. "Barbara Walters's Theater of Revenge." Harper's Magazine (New York), November 1989.

Oppenheimer, Jerry. "The Barbara: 20/20 Vision Reveals Ms. Walters as Queen B." Washington (D.C.) Journalism Review, May 1990.

Paisner, Daniel. The Imperfect Mirror: Inside Stories of Television Newswomen. New York: Morrow, 1989.

Reed, Julia. "Woman in the News." Vogue (New York), February 1992.

Sanders, Marlene. Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Wulf, Steve. "Barb's Wired." Time (New York), 6 November 1995.

 

See also Anchor; Gender and Television; News, Network