Who Was Barbara Walters?
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, journalist Barbara Walters developed her trademark interviewing style through long-standing jobs on NBC's Today show and ABC's 20/20. In 1997, Walters premiered a popular talk show called The View. She died on December 30, 2022, after a long illness, at the age of 93.
Journalist and writer Barbara Jill Walters was born on September 25, 1929, in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Dena Seletsky Walters and nightclub impresario Lou Walters. She had two siblings: older sister Jacqueline, who was born developmentally disabled and died in 1985, and brother Burton, who died of pneumonia in 1932. Walters was born Jewish, though her parents weren't practicing Jews.
In 1937, Lou opened a chain of nightclubs that expanded his business from Boston, Massachusetts, to Miami Beach, Florida. As a result, Walters attended Fieldston and Birch Wathen private schools in New York City and graduated from Miami Beach High School in 1947. Walters was surrounded by celebrities from an early age, which has been said to account for her relaxed manner when interviewing famous people.
Walters attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, graduating in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in English. After a brief stint as a secretary, she landed her first job in journalism as the assistant to publicity director and Republican activist Tex McCary of WRCA-TV. After sharpening her writing and producing skills at the NBC affiliate, Walters moved to CBS, where she wrote material for the network's Morning Show.
Working For the 'Today' Show
In 1961, NBC hired Walters to work as a researcher and writer for its popular Today show. Her initial assignments were stories slanted toward female viewers. Within a few months, however, she lobbied for a breakthrough assignment to travel with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on a trip to India and Pakistan. The resulting report earned Walters increasing responsibility at the network.
By 1964, Walters became a staple of the Today show—starring alongside Hugh Downs and, later, Frank McGee—and earned the nickname "Today girl." Though serving as a co-host, she wasn't given that official billing until 1974 and was restricted from asking questions of the show's "serious" guests until the male co-host had finished asking his.
Becoming a Household Name
Walters remained on the show for 11 years, during which time she honed her trademark probing-yet-casual interviewing technique. By 1972 she had established herself as a competent journalist and was chosen to be part of the press corps that accompanied President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China. In 1975, she won her first Daytime Entertainment Emmy Award for best host in a talk series.
Enticed by an unprecedented $1 million annual salary, Walters accepted a job at ABC in 1976 as the first woman co-anchor of a network evening news program. That same year, she was chosen to moderate the third and final presidential debate between challenger Jimmy Carter and incumbent President Gerald Ford. Walters also launched the first of a series of Barbara Walters Specials in 1976. The initial interview program featured President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. She followed up the next year by arranging the first joint interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.
It was during this time that Walters honed her skill as a reporter and solidified her probing interview style. She became known for her deftly maneuvered questions, often catching her subjects off guard and revealing uncommon candor. Her success has been attributed to her relentless effort to get the "first interview" from a wide range of people, an uncanny ability to ask the questions the public would most like to hear, and her ability not to alienate the people she interviews.
Many of Walters' male colleagues were outraged and openly critical of her newfound success. Among the most outspoken was her ABC co-anchor, Harry Reasoner, whose patronizing manner was apparent on camera. Critics also remained skeptical of Walters' qualifications as a credible journalist and questioned the move as a publicity stunt by ABC News to cash in on Walters' "star status." Adding to Walters' credibility problems was Gilda Radner's famous parody of "Baba Wawa" on Saturday Night Live, in which Radner exaggerated Walters' slight speech impediment. Though ABC's market research indicated male news anchors were not exclusively preferred by the audience, the ratings for the evening news program were disastrous, and the network released Walters within two years.
Working for ABC's '20/20'
In 1979, Walters became a part-time correspondent for the ABC news show, 20/20. She scored an exclusive interview with former President Nixon in 1980 — his first TV interview since his resignation in 1974. By the fall of 1981, she was a regular contributor to the program. She, along with former Today show partner Hugh Downs, was elevated to co-host in 1984. Downs retired in 1999, and Walters continued to co-host the show with John Miller and later John Stossel. In September 2000, Walters renewed her contract with ABC News for five more years. Her reported $12 million yearly salary made her the highest-paid news host in history. In September 2004, at the age of 73, Walters stepped down as co-host of 20/20.
In August 1997, Walters premiered a mid-morning talk show called The View, for which she is co-executive producer and co-host. The program features unique perspectives from five women on politics, family, careers and general public-interest topics. At various times the panel of women has included reporter Lisa Ling, attorney Star Jones, journalist and working mother Meredith Vieira, and comedian Joy Behar. Through the years several other notable women, including Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Sherri Shepherd, Rosie O'Donnell, and Debbie Matenopoulos sat on the show's panel.
In 2006, Walters found herself in the headlines when she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and revealed several "secrets" from her memoir, Audition — among them her affair with then-U.S. Senator Edward Brooke during the 1970s. In the book, Walters also discussed her animosity with former View co-host Jones over Jones' weight loss and departure from the talk show.
Over the years, Walters refined the art of "personality journalism" and "being the first" interviews. She was sometimes criticized for displaying personal emotion to pump ratings and relying on "softball questions." However, Walters' comprehensive and wide range of interviews presented a deep chronicle of the personalities that influenced the latter 20th century. In 1995, Walters conducted the first interview with Christopher Reeve after the horseback-riding accident that left him paralyzed. The following April, the broadcast received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. In 1999, Walters's two-hour-long exclusive with the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky made broadcasting history as the highest-rated news program ever broadcast on a single network.
Walters conducted timely interviews with world leaders, providing viewers with a more three-dimensional view of these larger-than-life personalities. They included the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; the U.K.'s first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher; the Dalai Lama; Russia's first post-communist president, Boris Yeltsin; and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. While interviewing Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Walters confronted him with, "In America, we read that you are unstable. We read that you are mad." She challenged Fidel Castro on the lack of freedom of the press in Cuba, to which he agreed. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, she traveled to Saudi Arabia to interview the brother of Osama bin Laden as well as Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud and several Saudi middle-class men and women. In total, the interviews presented a different picture of the Saudi population and their view of the world at a time when most Americans were vexed by the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
During her impressive career, Walters was honored with many awards, among them the Overseas Press Club's highest award, the President's Award, in 1988; induction into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1990; the Lowell Thomas Award for a career in journalism excellence in 1990, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, in 1991; the Muse Award from New York Women in Film and Television in 1997; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2000; and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007, as well as 34 daytime and primetime Emmy Awards. Walters also received honorary doctoral degrees from Ben-Gurion University in Jerusalem, Hofstra University, Marymount College, Ohio State University, Sarah Lawrence College, Temple University and Wheaton College.
In May 2013, Walters announced her retirement from television journalism. She said that she would go off the air in 2014, but remain an executive producer on The View. According to the Los Angeles Times, Walters explained that "I do not want to appear on another program or climb another mountain. I want instead to sit on a sunny field and admire the very gifted women—and OK, some men too—who will be taking my place."
In 1955, she married business executive Robert Henry Katz. They divorced in 1958.
In 1963, she married theatrical producer Lee Guber. They adopted a daughter, Jacqueline Dena, named after Walters' sister and mother. Walters and Guber divorced in 1976. She died on December 30, 2022, after a long illness, at the age of 93.
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