BARBARA WALTERS’ announcement that she would retire from television news reporting brought out the obligatory tributes as a trailblazer for women in broadcast journalism. She may be the single most important TV personality of the last 50 years, not just by breaking new ground for women in the media but also by tearing down the wall that separated news from entertainment.
Barbara Walters background was entertainment, and it showed. She grew up in the culture of show business and celebrity, and that connection was what gave her an opening in television. She began her TV career not as a reporter but as a P.R. “agent”, scheduling guests for a CBS morning show. Her first job on NBC’s “Today” was producing a fashion segment; but Walters’ real desire was to be “on camera” herself, and “Today” was her opportunity.
“Today” was never a hard hitting, probing journalistic program and Walters’ stock in trade was the “celebrity interview”, but unlike other celebrity interviewers, she asked probing, personal questions; and in doing so often tore down that barrier that separates the “public” person from the “private” one.
It was Barbara Walters who melded news and entertainment together on the “Today” as we know it; and when she began interviewing not just media celebrities but political figures and world leaders, the divide between “entertainment reporting” and “serious political journalism” began to meld.
Her assignment as co-anchor for ABC’s News in 1976 started a crisis. No “non-journalist” had ever served as anchor in a network news broadcast, and the journalistic world went viral. Her co-anchor Harry Reasoner viewed her with undisguised contempt.
Yet there were moments: It was Walters who asked Monica Lewinsky “What will you tell your children when you have them?” Would Reasoner or Cronkite even think of asking that question?