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Barbara Walters: Changing The Face Of Television News

Icons | September 10, 2021

American broadcast journalist Barbara Walters looks at film negatives with an unidentified man behind the scenes at NBC Studios, New York, New York, 1966. (Photo by Rowland Scherman/Getty Images)

Although she inspired Gilda Radner’s caricature on Saturday Night Live, “Baba Wawa,” and her interview with Katharine Hepburn has been lampooned because Walters asked the question “if you were a tree, what kind would you be?” (much later, it was revealed that this was a follow-up question to Hepburn’s statement that she would like to be a tree), Walters had a tremendous impact on the news.

Born on September 25, 1929 in Boston, Walters was around celebrities at a very young age. Her father Louis managed the Latin Quarter nightclub in Boston, and later opened the New York version of the club. He was also a Broadway producer, producing the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943. Louis took Walters to dress rehearsals, where the actresses and dancers would fawn over her. Because of this early exposure, Walters was not in awe of celebrities. 

In her early days on television. Source: (Pinterest).

Breaking Into Television Journalism

Walters attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in English. After she graduated, she began working at the NBC Affiliate in New York City, WNBT-TV, now WNBC. At first, she was writing press releases and doing publicity. In 1953, she began producing a 15-minute children’s program, Ask the Camera. She left the network when her boss pressured her to marry him. After leaving her job, she went on to produce the Eloise McElhone Show for WPIX, but the show was cancelled by 1954. In 1955, she became a writer at CBS’s The Morning Show. She worked for a few years as a publicist with Tex McCrary Inc. and as a writer for Redbook magazine, joining NBC’s The Today Show as a writer and researcher in 1961.

With Gene Shalit and Frank McGee in 1973. Source: (NBC/Wikipedia).

The Struggle To Become The First Female Co-host

At first, Walters was the “Today Girl” on the show. She did the weather and ‘lighter’ assignments, as nobody thought of women doing “hard news.” She joined the ranks of other “Today Girls,” including Florence Henderson. Her position didn’t last long, since, within a year, she became a reporter-at-large, developing, writing and editing her own work. During her time on The Today Show, she worked with host Hugh Downs, with whom she had a good relationship. However, when Frank McGee became the host, this changed. McGee refused to do interviews with Walters unless he had the first three questions. In 1971, she hosted a local NBC affiliate show, Not for Women Only. It aired after The Today Show. In 1974, after McGee died, NBC named Walters cohost of The Today Show, making her the show’s first female cohost. In 1975, she won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host for her work on The Today Show.

With Hugh Downs. Source: (Pinterest).

The Movement To ABC

From 1976-1978, she co-anchored the ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner, a rather unhappy partnership. In 1979, she was reunited with Hugh Downs on 20/20. During her career with ABC, she has appeared as a commentator on news specials, including presidential inaugurations and the coverage of 9/11. She has also moderated presidential debates, notably the third and final debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford on the campus of the College of William and Mary, and a 1984 Presidential debate. In 1997, she became the co-creator and co-executive producer of The View. In the original opening credits for the show, she described it as a forum for women of “different generations, backgrounds, and views.” Before her 2014 retirement, she landed two Daytime Emmy Awards, for Best Talk Show in 2003 and Best Talk Show Host (with Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and Sherri Shepherd) in 2009.

Interviewing the Fords in 1976. Source: (Wikipedia).

Her Interviews And Retirement

Over the course of her career, Walters became known for her interviewing style, “personality journalism,” as well as for her “scoop” interviews. She interviewed numerous world leaders, including the Shah of Iran, Boris Yeltsin, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez. She also interviewed many influential people, including Michael Jackson, Katharine Hepburn, and Sir Laurence Olivier. She left her role as co-host of 20/20 in 2004 but continued as a part-time contributor until 2016 including an interview with Mary Kay Letourneau. Her final interview was with Donald Trump during his run for president in 2015. The final time she appeared in public was 2016. 

Source: (Pinterest).

She Has A Star On Hollywood

Walters was married four times, to three different men. Her first marriage, to Robert Henry Katz, a business executive, happened in 1955 but was annulled 11 months later. Her second marriage, in 1963, was to Lee Guber, a theatrical producer and theater owner. They divorced in 1976. They had a single daughter, Jacqueline Dena Guber, who they adopted in 1968. Walters married Merv Adelson, the CEO of Lorimar television, in 1981 and they divorced in 1984. They remarried in 1986 and divorced again in 1992.

In addition to her daytime Emmys, she won an Emmy for her show, The Barbara Walters Summer Special, which ran from 1976-2015. She was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1989 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007. She published a book, How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything with the assistance of ghostwriter June Callwood in 1970, and in 2008, she published her autobiography, Audition: A Memoir

Tags: Barbara Walters | Hugh Downs | journalism

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Linda Speckhals

Writer

When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.