Barbara Walters, Pioneering TV Journalist, Dies at Age 93

 

Barbara Walters was best known for her interviews of world leaders, entertainers and newsmakers. John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Image

She was the first woman anchor of both a morning and evening television-news programme.

By guest author Joe Flint from the Wall Street Journal.

December 30, 2022

Barbara Walters, the trailblazing journalist who was the first woman anchor of both a morning and an evening television-news programme and at one point was the highest-paid TV-news personality in the country, has died. She was 93 years old.

 

Ms. Walters died Friday evening at her home in New York, according to Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger.

Best known for her interviews of world leaders, entertainers and newsmakers, Ms. Walters rose from writing news releases for a local New York TV station in the early 1950s to become the grand dame of television news. In the process, she broke down numerous barriers and cleared the way for a generation of women to follow in her footsteps including Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley and Katie Couric.

Related Barbara Walters Video

Barbara Walters was a pioneering journalist, known for her interviews with world leaders, newsmakers and entertainment icons. She was the first woman to anchor both a morning and evening TV-news program. Photo: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Ms. Walters also ushered in the era of the journalist as celebrity. She became as famous as the subjects she interviewed, many of whom viewed a sit-down with her as a sign that they had arrived.

To newsroom purists, the approach of Ms. Walters and those who followed her marked a turning point in journalism, where landing the big TV interview was known as a “get” and pursuing a tabloid story often took priority over hard news.

However, her admirers say Ms. Walters moved deftly between hard and soft news. She interviewed almost every U.S. president since Richard Nixon and had the first joint interview with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1977. She also landed the first TV interview with former Clinton White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which drew 74 million viewers in 1999, a record for a news program. She was the second woman to moderate a presidential debate.

“Barbara was a true legend, a pioneer not just for women in journalism but for journalism itself,” Mr. Iger said in a statement. “She was a one-of-a-kind reporter who landed many of the most important interviews of our time, from heads of state to the biggest celebrities and sports icons.”

Barbara Jill Walters was born Sept. 25, 1929, in Boston but grew up in New York City. She was born into a show-business family—her father, Lou Walters, ran the famed Latin Quarter nightclub. Ms. Walters has said that being around famous people as a child took away their mystique when she became a reporter.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she took a job in the public-relations department of the NBC television station in New York. She then segued into production, working on a children’s program called “Ask the Camera,” which was directed by Roone Arledge, who would go on to become the legendary head of ABC News and ABC Sports.

In 1961, Ms. Walters joined NBC’s “Today” morning program as a writer but soon was on air with a story on a Jacqueline Kennedy trip to India and Pakistan. By 1964, Ms. Walters was a regular “Today Girl” on the show and then its unofficial co-host. Although Ms. Walters was winning over TV viewers with ease, getting respect from a male-dominated industry was slower in coming. “Today” co-host Frank McGee wouldn’t participate in joint interviews with Ms. Walters unless he asked the first three questions, she said in her 2008 autobiography “Audition.” She wouldn’t become an official co-host until 1974, after Mr. McGee’s death.

ABC wooed Ms. Walters away from NBC in 1976 with a then-record $1 million-a-year contract and a chance to co-anchor ABC’s evening newscast with Harry Reasoner. The pairing proved awkward, and Ms. Walters later said in an interview for the Archives of American Television that Mr. Reasoner “didn’t want a partner” and would often talk about how “terrible” she was on the anchor desk. “The studio was cold, and I was frozen out,” she said.

After her stint on the evening news ended, Ms. Walters became a correspondent and later co-host of the prime-time news magazine “20/20” where she spent 20 years until stepping down in 2004. She also became known for her broadcast specials before the Academy Awards, in which she would interview major show-business personalities.

Personalities of NBC’s ‘Today’ were reunited in 1987. Barbara Walters is in the centre in yellow.Photo: Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press 

Ms. Walters also developed and starred in the long-running ABC daytime talk show “The View.” The program, starting in 1997, was a roundtable of female personalities including, over the years, Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell. Ms. Walters was an executive producer and part-time host of the show. When she was on air, she tended to play the den mother and was often forced to try to make peace when other panelists would take shots at each other. “The View” remains a staple of ABC’s daytime lineup.

Ms. Walters’s social life was as intriguing as her career. She was married four times including twice to television producer Merv Adelson, as well as to theatrical producer Lee Guber. She had an early short marriage to Robert Katz.

While in college she dated Roy Cohn, who later was a prosecutor in the Rosenberg espionage case and a mentor to former President Donald Trump. In the 1970s, she dated former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and, as disclosed in her autobiography, had an affair with Republican Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

Ms. Walters is survived by her daughter Jacqueline Danforth.

Barbara Walters in 1968. Although Ms. Walters won over TV viewers with ease, gaining respect in a male-dominated industry was a challenge.

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