As the first female evening coanchor and an intrepid journalist for five decades, Barbara Walters blazed pathways for women in television news. When she began interviewing guests on Today during the 1960s, she was forbidden to ask questions about such “male” topics as politics or economics. In November 1977 Walters smashed any vestige of those rules when she arranged the first exchange between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. No journalist has ever interviewed such a combination of statesmen and stars as Walters: every president and first lady since Richard Nixon; such world leaders as Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, China’s Premier Jiang Zemin, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro; and in her specials, Hollywood’s superstars, including Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks. Walters continues to get “first interviews,” notably the first discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin on television and the first conversation with President and Mrs. Bush after September 11. As Bill Carter in the New York Times noted, “despite the competition and the critics, she remains the interviewer of record for American television.”
Walters learned valuable lessons about the celebrity life early on. Her father, Lou Walters, owned a chain of popular nightclubs—the Latin Quarter in New York City, Miami, and Boston—and in each city the family had a residence. She lived through very good times in the company of such entertainers as Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle, as well as bad times when her father’s business suffered financial difficulties. Walters later reflected in a Life magazine interview on how this tumultuous environment shaped her: “There were two things that it gave me. One was a kind of insecurity, because it was show business and it could all be over tomorrow. As it happened, when I was in my early twenties, my father lost all his money. That’s really when I started to work, and I never stopped. On the other hand, it made me realize that celebrities are human beings, with problems. I knew what they were like when the makeup was off, which probably has helped me a lot today.”
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence and then taking a secretarial course, Walters quickly immersed herself in learning the many aspects of the television business, especially writing and producing. One of her first professional jobs was in the publicity department of the New York NBC affiliate preparing press releases. Soon afterward, she served as a producer of a local children’s show, Ask the Camera. Walters broke into morning television at CBS where she served as a booker and writer for the network’s attempt at competing with NBC’s Today. The experience proved frustrating, and she landed a job as a writer at a respected public relations firm, Tex McCrary, Inc., under the supervision of William Safire. Later a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and a columnist for the New York Times, Safire remembered her as very sharp, going “right for the news or where the human interest was,” a talent that would become Walters’s signature.
In 1961 Walters joined the Today staff as a writer, working on female-related stories. Walters impressed Today executives by covering the Paris fashion scene and made her first official appearance on August 29, 1961, to introduce the film footage shot in France. She continued to earn assignments, including accompanying First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on a goodwill tour of India and Pakistan. The main role for women on-air was as a “Today Girl,” an attractive personality who chatted pleasantly and read the weather. Even though she made sporadic reports over the next three years, she was never considered as a candidate for the “Today Girl.” She revealed to Aljean Harmetz in 1998 that she often thought, “Hey fellas, look at me, I’m right here, how about me?”
When actress Maureen O’ Sullivan did not work out as the “Today Girl” in 1964, producer Al Morgan decided to test Walters out as a regular. Walters began appearing several days a week without any promotion. By October 1964 Walters officially became a Today reporter, and Morgan announced: “We want intelligent, creative women with expertise on this show. The day of the “Today Girl” who simply sits on the panel, looks charming, and passes tea is over. [Barbara’s] promotion is due to the recognition of her growing ability.”
On Today Walters excelled at interviewing both celebrities and politicians. She made front-page news by landing the first interview with Dean Rusk after he resigned as secretary of state. She also obtained exclusive interviews with the notoriously private Fred Astaire, Truman Capote, and Andrew Wyeth. She was careful to conduct her serious interviews with such statesmen as Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat on location. Walters pointed out to the New York Times in 2004 that Today’s host, Frank McGee, required that in the studio “if there was a hard news interview I could only come in after he’d asked three questions.” She revealed many of her secrets of interviewing in her 1970 book How to Talk with Practically Anybody About Practically Anything.
Although Walters was part of the NBC News team of correspondents who accompanied Richard Nixon on his historic visit to China in 1972, she didn’t receive the recognition she desired on Today. For ten years she had worked side by side with host Hugh Downs and then Frank McGee, but it wasn’t until 1974 that she was named cohost, with the arrival of Jim Hartz. Even before that title change, Walters had hosted a local television program. In 1971 she began moderating a daily program in New York, Not for Women Only. An early precursor to Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, the series examined social issues with experts and had participation from the audience. Highly rated and syndicated in markets around the country, Not for Women Only was cited by the New York Times as one of the most “provocative shows in the entire early morning schedule.” In 1975 Walters received an Emmy Award as Outstanding Host or Hostess in a Talk, Service, or Variety Series.
In 1976 Walters made history when she left NBC to become coanchor of the ABC Evening News. She was not only the first woman to helm a nightly newscast, but became the highest-paid journalist in the industry. Walters’s salary created a firestorm of debate. She received one million dollars a year: half to coanchor the news with Harry Reasoner, the other half to host entertainment specials. Her production company, Barwall Productions, Inc., was contracted for four specials annually. Critics questioned whether Walters’s arrangement signaled the blurring of news and entertainment. Richard Salant, president of CBS News, asked: “Is Barbara [Walters] a journalist or is she Cher?” Gilda Radner of Saturday Night Live began imitating her style and persona in the now classic “Baba Wawa” sketches. In addition to the external commotion, there was no chemistry between Reasoner and Walters; in fact, the chauvinistic Reasoner would not speak to the newcomer off the air. Walters later admitted: “I was drowning without a life preserver. I thought that my career was over.” In 1978 Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, reformatted the program as World News Tonight without a main anchor, and Walters’s exclusive interviews became a major ingredient of the newscast.
Walters’s specials proved profitable and highly rated, establishing her as one of television’s most commanding interviewers. She has been able to create a rapport with celebrities, finding ways “to open them up without tearing them apart.” Many of her conversations with Hollywood stars were newsworthy, including those with Katharine Hepburn, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Bette Davis, and Audrey Hepburn. In 1993 Walters launched an annual special, The Ten Most Fascinating People, which reviews the most prominent newsmakers of the year.
Walters has been a regular presence on ABC for almost thirty years. For twenty years she was cohost of ABC’s signature magazine series, 20/20, where many of her interviews made headlines. Her 1999 exclusive talk with former Clinton intern Monica Lewinsky was viewed by seventy million people, making that segment of 20/20 the highest-rated news program ever broadcast. She received a George Foster Peabody Award for her 1995 inspiring profile of Christopher Reeve. The citation read: “Barbara Walters is at her best here—her skillful interviewing techniques combine with a deep affection for her subject.” In 1997 she cocreated a contemporary forum for women, The View, where women of different generations discuss social and cultural issues of the day. Walters is not only a cohost, but also co-owner and coexecutive producer of this unscripted show that she originally envisioned as a cross between Virginia Graham’s Girl Talk and This Week with David Brinkley.
In 1990 she was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’s Hall of Fame, acknowledged “worldwide as one of television’s most respected interviewers and journalists.”