Legend. Icon. The First Lady of Broadcast Journalism. There are not enough superlatives to describe the career of Barbara Jill Walters. Highly regarded for her unique interviewing technique and solid journalistic work, Barbara was the first woman ever given the title of ‘co-host’ for a network news program while working at NBC on the Today program. She made headlines in 1976 after signing a million-dollar contract with ABC that made her the first woman to co-anchor an evening network news program, and the highest paid journalist – male or female – at the time. While the stay at her new network would get off to a rocky and frustrating start, Barbara relentlessly soldiered on to become an amazing contributor to the ABC Television Network over the course of the next 40 years. Here’s a look back:
ABC Evening News – As she took her seat next to the established Harry Reasoner, Barbara made history as the first woman to ever anchor a network’s flagship news broadcast. But Reasoner, who was born in Dakota City, Iowa, complained about the pairing to his bosses in private and openly patronized Barbara in public. As she put it to Oprah Winfrey many years later, Reasoner was her “unwilling co-anchor.” But while Reasoner may have been condescending, the old-line media were downright rude at best…and perhaps even sexist at worst. Barbara left the program in 1978 after two years of poor ratings.
Barbara Walters Specials – Putting the rancor with Reasoner and overall disappointment related to ABC Evening News behind her, Barbara increased the focus on her primetime specials composed of interviews with heads of state, newsmakers, celebrities and sports figures. The very first such show had aired in December 1976 and featured an interview with President-elect Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalyn. A tenacious pursuer of elusive people in the news, these specials were resonating with viewers and earning respect from many of her critics. In November 1977 she went “mano a mano” with Walter Cronkite as they both snagged a joint, high-profile interview with Egypt’s President Anwar Al Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. According to the New York Times, Cronkite was heard to say after the interview, “Did Barbara get anything I didn’t get?” She also scored an exclusive interview with former President Richard Nixon in 1980 – the first live interview after his resignation in 1974.
20/20 – Created by legendary television executive Roone Arledge, this newsmagazine has been a staple on ABC’s Friday night program schedule since its premiere in June 1978. Barbara was reunited with her former Today co-host, Hugh Downs, when she came on board in 1979 as a correspondent; she was named Downs’ co-host in 1984 and remained in that role for the next 20 years.
Barbara Walters Oscar Specials – For nearly three decades, Barbara would sit down with the most prominent players in the movie industry prior to Hollywood’s biggest night. She interviewed a bevy of film legends such as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Anthony Hopkins, Steven Spielberg, Anne Hathaway, Helen Mirren and Tom Cruise. When announcing that the 2010 special would be her last, Barbara said, “This special has been a labor of love for 29 years. I will always remember when Hugh Jackman gave me a private lap dance or sitting down with the legendary Bette Davis or being taught to tango by Al Pacino. It’s those priceless moments that made this special the Oscar tradition that it has become.”
The 10 Most Fascinating People – Launched by Barbara in 1993, these popular year-end specials featured people who defined the year for one reason or another. The list of Barbara’s picks for the ‘most fascinating’ person of the year resembles a Who’s Who of newsmakers over the past 20+ years: First Ladies Hillary Clinton (1993), Laura Bush (2002) and Michelle Obama (2008); Nelson Mandela (1994); Mother Teresa (1998); President-elect Barack Obama (2008); Steve Jobs – posthumously honored (2011); and Caitlyn Jenner (2015).
The View – In August 1997, a new talk show called The View joined the ABC daytime schedule. Barbara was the program’s co-creator, co-executive producer, and co-host. She described the show in the original opening credits as a gathering place for “women of different generations, backgrounds, and views.” The show has won thirty Daytime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Talk Show and Outstanding Talk Show Host.
Even a short list of the people Barbara interviewed for the aforementioned programs is a chronicle of the 20th and 21st century’s most notable figures: the Shah of Iran, Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, the UK’s Margaret Thatcher, India’s Indira Ghandhi, Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, King Hussein of Jordan and the Dalai Lama. Barbara’s extensive interview with Cuba’s Fidel Castro in June 1977 garnered extra attention. She concluded the resulting television special by saying, “What we disagreed on most profoundly is the meaning of freedom – and that is what truly separates us.” But her most-watched special, seen by a record 74 million viewers, was the interview presented in March 1999 with Monica Lewinsky who broke her silence about the affair with President Bill Clinton.
Barbara talked often about one interview in particular that she considered among her most memorable. It was the first of several interviews she conducted with Ronald Reagan during his presidency, and took place just eight months after he survived John Hinckley’s assassination attempt. Both Reagan and his beloved wife Nancy recalled the frightening March 30, 1981 experience. Barbara asked Nancy, “Mrs. Reagan, was there a point when you thought your husband might die?” Nancy replied, “I was awfully scared. I was awfully scared.” Barbara would interview Reagan several more times during and after his presidency. In 1986, Barbara once again sat down with Reagan at a time when he enjoyed a 70 percent approval rating. She touched on his reputation as “the Great Communicator” and asked if his acting experience helped in any way. With a hearty laugh, Reagan said, “I’ve often wondered how some people in positions of this kind – how they manage without having had any acting experience!” It was a special honor to be in the audience for a conversation between the two of them at an ABC Affiliate Meeting in June, 1990. It what turned out to be Barbara’s last such interview with our 40th President, she asked, “How do you think that history will remember you?” Reagan offered this insightful answer: “I hope it’ll remember me on the basis that when I took office, I felt very strongly that our government had grown too officious and imposing too much on the private sector in our society and that I wanted to see if the American people couldn’t get back that pride and patriotism, that confidence that they had in our system. And I think they have.” Barbara interviewed every U.S. President and First Lady from Richard and Pat Nixon through Barack and Michelle Obama.
I had the pleasure of encountering Barbara at many affiliate meetings through the years. But it was just after the 1997 launch of The View that we got to know each other much better. She knew of my support for the program, and reached out to ask me to pen a testimonial for use in a marketing campaign around the 1998 National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) conference in New Orleans. At the time, only 60% or so of ABC affiliates were actually clearing The View on a live basis. And so it was that the following quote from me appeared in a double-truck ad in the January 19, 1998 edition of Broadcasting & Cable magazine: “Barbara Walters and her dynamic team have given daytime viewers a refreshing, thought-provoking show that’s destined to become a mainstay of morning television.” Little did I know how true those words would turn out to be!
Barbara showed her appreciation for such support in many ways, from a “thank you” phone call to an occasional personal letter. Barbara would often times show her sense of humor as was the case at the end of a letter she sent in December 1997 which ended with, “Please let me know if there is anything that I might do for you. And tell your wife she has terrific taste.” In March 1998 she went so far as to agree to help my oldest daughter, Kristy, with a project for her high school advanced composition writing class. This high school junior’s assignment was to interview someone about their writing process. Having met Barbara on several prior occasions, Kristy contacted her office and successfully arranged the interview. Here are just a few of the Q’s and A’s that contributed to the final paper:
Kristy: “How did you get to be such an accomplished writer?”
Barbara: “Years and years of writing experiences.”
Kristy: “Does the working atmosphere affect your writing?”
Barbara: “No, I’m just as content in a chaotic newsroom as I am in a quiet office.”
Kristy: “Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?”
Barbara: “Learn everything you can about a particular subject that you love.”
Here are the final few sentences from Kristy’s school paper: “The (writing) process is never the same, but it will invariably start with an idea. If you let it develop, it can transform into something extraordinary. In the refined words of Barbara Walters, ‘Writing will find a way.’ She knows that, regardless of diversity or technology, writing will always emerge as the primary source of our enlightenment.” Today, Kristy puts her writing skills to work as an attorney for the Ahlers Cooney law firm in Des Moines where she specializes in their K-12 Education practice.
Another way that Barbara would show her gratitude was contributing benefit auction items and videotaping PSA’s in support of local causes. In particular, she and her fellow The View co-hosts could always be counted on to lend a hand with “Bras for the Cause.” They would usually have a little fun as they did so. In a PSA for the November 2009 gala dinner, Barbara said, “The View has contributed to this event in the past…and this entirely volunteer effort provides funds to screen and detect and treat and hopefully cure breast and cervical cancers all across Iowa.” She then added with a wry smile, “I am just relieved that we weren’t asked to sign a bra again this year!”
As the years went by, I would occasionally stop by The View to say hello and demonstrate my continued support. One such visit occurred in November, 2006 during my term as Chairman of the ABC Affiliates Association. It was shortly after Rosie O’Donnell had joined the show as a co-host, and she was reportedly concerned about the feedback from a few vocal affiliates who were less than thrilled with her selection. John Rouse, the network’s top affiliate relations executive, invited me to join him for a meeting with Rosie to express a vote of confidence. But what made this particular visit so very memorable was that it happened to be “best friends co-host week” and Barbara’s friend, renowned opera performer Beverly Sills, was joining the ladies on the show. I’ll always remember my conversation with those two remarkable women in Barbara’s dressing room before the show. Sadly, Beverly would die from lung cancer less than eight months later.
Any opportunity to spend time with Barbara creates fond memories. In September 2005 we happened to arrive at Carnegie Hall at the same time for a memorial service celebrating the life of Peter Jennings, who had died from lung cancer a couple months earlier. It was an honor to accompany and escort her to a seat inside. On February 2008, the Broadcasters Foundation of America presented its annual Golden Mike Award to Anne Sweeney, Co-Chair of Disney Media Networks and President of the Disney-ABC Television Group. This black-tie event at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City was hosted by Tom Bergeron, longtime host of the network’s Dancing with the Stars. Actress and singer Vanessa Williams, who was starring in Ugly Betty at the time, was also on hand to perform. Barbara and I were among a handful of colleagues and family members asked by Anne to “present” her for the high honor during the program. There’s few things in life more intimidating than having to follow Barbara Walters on stage and speak to a sold-out crowd in the Waldorf’s main ballroom! And on one other occasion, Susan and I enjoyed spending some time with Barbara at a reception prior to the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner in April 2012. That year’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, even poked a little fun at Barbara during his monologue at the dinner later that night.
Barbara has been honored with thirty-four Daytime and Primetime Emmy Awards, the Lowell Thomas Award for journalism excellence, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, induction into the Academy of Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Barbara was recognized in 2008 as a Disney Legend, a Hall of Fame program recognizing those individuals who have made an extraordinary contribution to The Walt Disney Company. She even has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Barbara is a WINNER who spent more than five decades shattering glass ceilings in the world of network television news. On her final day as co-host of The View in May 2014, Barbara was joined on stage by female journalists from all decades and networks: Jane Pauley, Deborah Norville, Katie Couric, Gayle King, Savannah Guthrie, Connie Chung and many more. Another was Oprah Winfrey who told her, “I’m here to celebrate what you’ve meant to me…I want to thank you for being a pioneer…(for) paving the road we all walk on…You’re really the reason we’re all here.” While this WINNER has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on broadcast journalism, her lasting legacy may well be her role as a pioneer for – and lasting imprint on – female journalists to follow. One thing’s for sure: there will never be another television news career quite like hers.
“When you fail, you have to prove yourself. That’s often the best thing that can happen, because then you’re sure your success isn’t just luck.” – Barbara J. Walters
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