Mar 7, 2014
Kasia Anderson on Barbara Walters
Posted on Aug 1, 2008
Although her father, Lou Walters, a well-known nightclub and vaudeville impresario in his heyday, watched his career prospects steadily evaporate with the rise of television, Barbara Walters entered the work force just as television was beginning its ascent and rode right up with it. She was able to break out of the restrictive roles assigned to women in the business, moving past the role of “tea-pourer” and fashion correspondent, as well as “ ‘Today Show’ Girl,” to become the first female co-anchor of a TV evening news program. She was also one of the first female reporters to cover politics for a major network, and she laid the foundation, in a sense, for hugely successful talk shows like “Oprah” with her work on NBC’s “Not for Women Only,” ABC’s “20/20” and “The Barbara Walters Special.” She set a new standard, thanks in part to Lee Stevens, for what male or female anchors could expect to be paid at her level.
Not that it was always a smooth ride to the top for Walters—far from it. She admits to several missteps over the years, but many of her problems that weren’t self-generated came from the journalistic “boys’ club.” Some of her male colleagues supported her, but several others shunned her or deliberately tried to undermine her career. Harry Reasoner, her ABC co-anchor for her first two years at that network, was unable to contain his disdain for her on the air, and the bad blood between them eventually caused their producers to keep Walters on the move as a roving anchor and away from the desk. Earlier, Frank McGee, one of her co-hosts on “Today,” wouldn’t share interviews with her unless he asked the first three questions, even though by then she had more than proved her ability to carry a challenging interview herself. However, she eventually prevailed; Reasoner returned to CBS, and Walters went on to more high-profile interviews and projects at ABC, eventually becoming a mainstay on “20/20,” starting “The View” and doing dozens more specials.
Another point worth noting is that, although most people hardly think of Walters as a controversial media figure, and although she plays it safe in her memoir by keeping most of her political opinions as mysterious as her age, she didn’t always take the safe road on her political assignments. Her characterization of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, for example, is fairly positive, although she is careful to point out that she doesn’t share his take on what freedom means, both for his people and for the Cuban press. In another instance, a report she filed for NBC during her visit to post-revolution China as part of President Richard Nixon’s press entourage, in which she interviewed a rural farmer who explains why life was better for him after Chairman Mao Tse-tung took power, never aired. She was unexpectedly drawn into the inner workings of the Iran-Contra affair when she chose to go straight to President Ronald Reagan instead of her network with a bit of news that had fallen in her lap, a move that provoked a public reprimand by her bosses. She point-blanked the Shah of Iran about his attitude toward women, including his own wife, who was seated next to him at the time. Finally, she made sure she wasn’t scooped during the historic 1978 peace talks between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin by throwing pebbles at Sadat’s window late at night to rouse him for an update.
In the eyes of this reader, the book’s value rests largely in these kinds of stories about her big moments on the job as a newswoman. She is in the front row of these history-making events, and in her element, and it shows. It’s easy to tell that her work is ever the love of her life, apart from her daughter and a small dog saddled with the unfortunate name of Cha Cha. Correspondingly, her writing becomes less self-conscious and more infectiously exciting, because her own excitement in revisiting these events is palpable. It almost seems as though she would have preferred to just tell anecdotes from her career were it not for the expectation that sex, family and childhood tales must be included for a person’s life story, especially a famous person’s, to be rendered intelligibly, not to mention profitably, in memoir form.
Walters fulfills that expectation not just by writing about dating Alan Greenspan (egad!), but also by dishing about some of her most sensational reports and celebrity interviews—even though she later decries the sensationalism of today’s celebrity-saturated infotainment. “These days, there’s a whole new trend—the interview as a confessional,” she says. “Drive under the influence, cheat on your wife, take too many pills, go into rehab, make an apology—do an interview. That seems to be the daily fodder of syndicated entertainment news shows.” This from the woman who devotes two whole chapters of her memoir to her coverage of high-profile murder cases, from John Lennon’s to JonBenet Ramsey’s, and many more pages to her sit-downs with hundreds of Hollywood stars. Apparently aware of how she could be regarded as part of the problem, she quickly makes an attempt at distinguishing herself from the riffraff in her next line: “On the Academy Award programs, however, we make an effort to go for the stars whose careers and personal lives are so interesting that they bear the test of time.”
Those more gossipy chapters, while undoubtedly part of the book’s winning formula in terms of sales, are mostly forgettable, if not regrettable: Is yet another rehash of the O.J. Simpson trial really necessary? Has the world really been waiting to hear Oprah opine, “I have always known that I was born for greatness”? Could be, but regardless, despite Walters’ assertion that journalists shouldn’t be the ones making headlines, that claim is belied by her epic “Audition.” Plus, in contemporary consumer societies like the U.S., where citizens’ dollars can go farther than their votes, hundreds of thousands of readers can’t be wrong.
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