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West of the West

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Kasia Anderson on Barbara Walters

Posted on Aug 1, 2008
book cover

By Kasia Anderson

(Page 3)

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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By since1492, August 10, 2008 at 7:51 am Link to this comment

Barbara is a media whore.
Hoa binh

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By Louise, August 3, 2008 at 10:20 am Link to this comment

When I think of Barbara Walters, which isn’t very often, I think of two things.

The first real “female” power player in the industry. And someone who, in spite of an obvious speech impairment, had the determination to become successful in a career that requires a lot of speaking.

Like her or not, those are the facts and for that she should be recognised.

Plus I marvel that someone her age can still walk in heels! I had to give that up years ago! smile

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By thebeerdoctor, August 2, 2008 at 1:13 am Link to this comment

Barbara Walters proves that banality, when properly packaged can make you a multi-millionaire. The View has been so thoroughly marketed that the shows’ “cat fights” wind up on The Huffington Post. What a marvelous spectacle it is! Well paid women sitting on a stage complaining about the increased price of sporting events, or whether or not to wear stockings. There is plenty of talk about sex, boobs, bootie, and let’s not forget the fist bump.
I guess it is entertaining, in a mindless sort of way. How Ms. Walters is able to maintain her veneer as “television journalist” is the crown jewel of the whole magic act. I can think of few things just as useless, but none is more important than The View. That is why Mr. and Mrs McCain have appeared on the show, along with Mr. and Mrs. Obama, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Inquiring minds WANT to know…

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By Sabagio Mauraeno, August 1, 2008 at 7:31 pm Link to this comment

Brittnay and Paris and Linda and all the Jennifers and Jesicas, these women are products of an “arrested childhood” that produced stunted, mixed up adults. They also have a chance to grow out of it, grow up. My problem with Ms walters is, she too had a chance to grow, become more than the “token female at the Today Show desk,” but she didn’t.  And that’s what sad and at the same time irritating, now that she’s pushing 80, that she’s still doing the same thing over and over and over again , alive but not living.

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By mackTN, August 1, 2008 at 5:46 pm Link to this comment

Barbara Walters came of age in a world that many have no real memory of, and, based on the reviews of her book, a world she has trouble describing to readers.  Walters was never supposed to be a journalist, really.  She was meant to open refrigerator doors and sell dishwashing liguid.  But just as the world was changing to admit women as professionals and blacks as people, there sat Babwa available for the great transition.  She doesn’t have the perspective yet, but she kept putting one foot ahead of the other, worked constantly, and survived into the 21st century. 

Why expect so much from her?  In the words of Harvey Dent, either you’re a hero until you live long enough to be the villain…or something.

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By stonecutter, August 1, 2008 at 4:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This week, when McCain compared Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, he forgot to include Barbara Walters. I lived in New York for 60 years, and can’t remember one Walters news story or interview “get” that lasted longer in my memory than the weather report. She makes Larry King seem like Ed Murrow or Mike Wallace. Her Oscar “Specials” were as penetrating as your average guy with his prostate surgically removed. She has the gravitas of Halle Berry and the journalistic bona fides of Oprah. They are two very small peas in a very large pod.

I stood next to her in the elevator of an office building 20 years ago, and believe me, she was ancient then.  She had on enough makeup to clog a storm drain. She glanced at me, to paraphrase Quint from “Jaws” when he describes the eyes of an attacking shark, with “dolls eyes, dead eyes”. I kept my distance, even in the elevator. I can understand the “appeal” of hotties like Nora O’Donnell, Campbell Brown or Katty Kay, but Barbwa WaWa. even in her prime?  Sorry, it eludes me completely. Her choice of liasons—Jeez, Roy Cohn and Alan Greenspan—is like lusting after nude pics of Eleanor Roosevelt or HRC. Same vibe.

American pop culture has its rare moments, but most of it is like fetid water in a swamp. It’s technically water, but it’ll probably killya if you drink it. Walters is like a post-modern incarnation of Norma Desmond. She still thinks she’s Salome, a female Dorian Gray disintegrating right in front of her “adoring fans”. Gilda Radner, a comic genius who tragically died way too young, nailed Walters’ essence, which is why the impression so rattled the Grande Dame of network infotainment. It wasn’t just the lisp…it was the profound vapidness, the inauthenticity, the total lack of a “there” there, the way she sat ramrod straight like a ventriloquist’s dummy, controlled by an unseen hand and monumentally grating voice. The fact that she’s been so successful on air is just another indication of the broad superficiality and masked sexual hysteria of this society, and the “bimboness” of so many TV-addicted women (if you try and tell me she has a large non-gay male following…sorry, no dice).

Apparently, they’re besotted enough to shell out $20-plus bucks for her hackneyed “book”, which reads like the “Page Six” column in the NY Post. Even money they’ll do exactly the same for “My Life as a Skank” by Britney…whenever it comes out.

Meanwhile, there is a way to avoid all this pseudo-celebrity swill…simply don’t pay attention. That is still humanly possible, believe it or not, provided your mind is still switched to ON.

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By Sabagio Mauraeno, August 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm Link to this comment

Barbara Walters,  Paris Hilton…the current crop of “tools” used to mind manage us are today, the living examples of how eroded our ability to think critically has become. Things, images, of no substance that make no real contributions to the benefit of anything or anybody, are now singled out as successful examples of what our civilization can produce. Why? Because it’s cheap and easy and profitable.

Manipulation of public taste, now manifested in the form of “empty celebrity and hollow promises of “it can happen to you” have been long standing techniques of those who rule,lead and benefit from the ability to do so.  Subliminalism was used as a tool early on by the masters of Television advertising. The hidden message that was flashed when watching Jackie Gleason was “eat more popcorn.” From the President on down we were all outraged by the crass commercialism behind the use of this new technology. We demanded and got we thought, sanctions that would put a stop to it forever and always.

Well, we know now that politicians everywhere, in democracies, theocracies, kingdoms,totalitarian countries, everywhere, would never, could never abandon a tool that proved so effective in managing and directing what we do and think. So what is the big surprise here?  Despite this massive assault on our minds from womb to tomb, like in the song,  “we do survive.”  And that’s all. In the Age of Global Warming and knowledge of its terrible consequences if we do nothing, do we really believe that the current crop of the Powers that Be, can lead us to make sacrifices needed to set aside the way we do things now to get to where we want to go, for the betterment of future generations? That those who profess to lead and make decisions in our best interests,  who control the factors of production, the sources of what we deem are the basic necessities for getting and keeping the comforts of a quality of life beyond food, shelter and other basics of the nature of mankind, are going to make the personal sacrifices needed to safe our world that will set a standard for
us all to follow?  I don’t see it happening until maybe 40 years from now when we won’t be here to see it, feel it,smell it, taste it or ...believe it.

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By TheSeditousRascal, August 1, 2008 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment

Barbara Walters is to journalism is what Paris Hilton is to music…

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By Sabagio Mauraeno, August 1, 2008 at 11:31 am Link to this comment

Pioneering? Connie Chung, yes. Barbara Walters? Nay nah!

Barbara Walters comes across as “sincere” as I remember, ever since she came on board with the Today Show with Dave Garroway?

From the gitgo its been a masquerade?  She’s a gossip protected from overt criticism by her official designation, “journalist.”  But This is a woman who in an interview with Lady Bird Johnson a few months after Lyndon’s death, asked his widow how she dealt with the President’s many affairs over the years of their marriage with other women. Did she ask Jackie Kennedy the same question?  Mrs. Johnson said afterwards that “if I live to be 100, I’ll never give that woman an interview again.”  Mrs. Johnson lived to be 100.  And she didn’t.

Walters also reported, in a sincere manner, that Uri Gellar, the man who said he bent spoons solely with the power of his mind, was the real thing, that she couldn’t detect any fakery. Insightful,right? She did her homework but missed the part where the Israeli government kicked Uri out of the country for fraud.  And then there’s the Barbara who accepted an invitation by the Shah of Iran to come to Iran’s celebration of the 4000 anniversary of the reign of The Peacock Throne. She went and came back with a glowing report about what a wonderful time she had, and how much the people of Iran loved their Shah and his family.  This was about a year before the Shah left Iran under cover of darkness to go into exile when Iran became the Islamic Republic.

Harry Reasoner didn’t think much of her as a journalist or a pioneer when she joined ABC news and didn’t hide his feelings. He knew something that we didn’t at the time, and didn’t tell us.  Hugh Downs walked away from Prime Time or 20-20 when Barbara did an interview on a subject or subject matter he thought unethical and had turned down when he was offered the same opportunity. Barbara’s in her element with The View: gossip again masquerading as “the women’s perspective on current events.” Star Jones, a woman who is right up there with Barbara when it comes to self-promotion did get it right when she questioned Barbara’s integrity/honesty/questionable ethics when Ms Walters told all in her latest memoir about her affair with Senator Brooks. Why do we need to know this? Senator Brooks is an elderly man, living in retirement with his family, children and grandchildren. Why inflict this kind of hurt on his family?  Ms Walter"s still seems, at her advanced age, insecure and afraid that she wouldn’t sell any of her books if there weren’t any references to her sexual adventures with married men of celebrity.

I’m probably all wrong about this observation of Ms. Walters. I mean, all the local, state, regional and national talk show comedian/hosts have been allowing her to promote her book on their programs for the past several weeks, and these guys, Rose,  Letterman,Leno… these guys wouldn’t do it if they believed Barbara wasn’t the journalist she said she was. Would they?

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By troublesum, August 1, 2008 at 5:37 am Link to this comment

Where’s Gilda Ratner when you need her?

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By Tim Trevathan, August 1, 2008 at 5:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Like Kasia’s thesis on celebrity and politics, Advertising and ‘the fake success culture of celebrity accomplishment” (ie: Paris Hilton,already rich makes an internet stag flick and ends up a ‘celebrity’ based on what social value? Other than more destructive (to herself and youth culture) values, there are few redeemable qualities to this kind of celebrity culture.

        Advertising has had controversial value to the public. The general public’s attitude toward advertising has been increasingly negative over the years (Mittal, 1994 p. 1). 

Advertisers continue to extend their reach from newspapers, magazines, radio, television, billboards, bus sides, taxi roofs, wheel covers and now into public paid for spaces such as movie theaters.

The public, and children specifically, are targeted because of their susceptibility and status as a “captive audience” once in movie theaters. The trend started nationally when companies started sponsoring movies.”

Past research has shown implications of advertising having negative health implications in four significant ways;

“Physical health is cited as the vulnerability to mimic good or bad social habits based on advertising influence.

Emotional health can be affected by delivering media-imposed definitions of beauty, sexuality, maturity and problem-solving.

Advertising also plays an influential role in other emotional issues such as instant gratification.

Social health because advertising often communicates attitudes, values, beliefs and ideologies, including those of consumption, competition and materialism.

Finally, it can affect our cultural health when we observe how, when, and if certain groups of people are represented or not represented in advertising messages.” (Fox, 2001)

Americans feel assaulted by advertisements and commercials.

There are advertisements and commercials in schools, airport lounges, doctor’s offices, movie theaters, hospitals, gas stations, elevators, convenience stores, on the Internet, on fruit, on ATM’s, on garbage cans and countless other places. There are ads on beach sand and restroom walls. “I don’t know if anything is sacred anymore,” Mike Swanson, who directs ad placement for the ad agency Carmichael Lynch, told the Associated Press. (Ruskin, 2006)

This assault intensifies virtually every day. With ad budgets skyrocketing, advertising techniques inevitably become more invasive and coercive. Advertisers are engaged in a relentless battle to claim every waking moment, and what one executive called, with chilling candor, “mind share.” (Ruskin, 2006)

To this end, the book “Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion – It’s Dubious Impact on American Society” goes about differentiating the needs of people and the exploitation of consumers for marketers and advertisers gains.

A critique ensues over the straw defenses put out by the advertising and marketing crowd to say that they are only giving “the people what they want” much like a drug pusher who may chide that they only sell to a clientèle who already uses the drug they sell (Schudson, 1984 p. 237).

“Marketers do not actually seek to discover consumer needs as much as what is available among commercial choices” (Schudson, 1984 p. 235).

Two recent surveys offer conflicting reports on moviegoers’ attitudes towards movie ads.

An Arbitron survey found that two-thirds of adults and seven in 10 moviegoers between the ages of 12 and 24 “don’t mind” the ads.

But an Insightexpress survey found that 52% of those surveyed found the ads intrusive, 53% said theaters should stop showing them, and 27% said showing the commercials will cause them to go to movies less frequently.

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