Barbara Walters, a ‘shining example of possibility’ for women in a man’s world


They streamed onto the set, a high-gloss, high-heeled, perfectly coifed, sheath-dressed parade of glory to honor their godmother. Oprah announced their household names: Connie Chung, Jane Pauley, Katie Couric, Savannah Guthrie, Gretchen Carlson, Gayle King, Maria Shriver, Diane Sawyer, Hoda Kotb and a dozen others, the women who had come to dominate and define television news.

It was 2014, and Barbara Walters was retiring from ABC’s “The View,” which she had created and produced as well as co-hosted — her final game-changing move in a five-decade streak as a nearly constant presence on television. Amid the air kisses and genuine hugs from her fellow broadcasters during her on-air farewell to the daytime talk show, there were words of appreciation about how much Walters had mattered to them, and their careers.

And matter she did. Not just to the women at her own rarefied tier of the television industry but to men and women alike across the media business — and to millions of women worldwide who saw her as an example of possibility and distinction in a man’s world.

“Barbara was the first woman I can remember who was widely respected for her career,” my friend Priscilla Eshelman, a baby boomer who works in digital advertising sales, told me in a text message Saturday morning. That made Walters a “shining example of possibility, demonstrating how a woman could self-actualize.”

Barbara Walters, TV’s tireless pursuer of the newsmaker ‘get,’ dies at 93

It helped that Walters was famous not for beauty-pageant looks but for her talent. Eshelman would grow into the kind of 1970s teenage girl who would latch onto the fledgling Ms. magazine as a feminist lifeline, but before that, there was Walters.

She led by her mere prominence, the very fact of her existence.

Walters, who died Friday at 93, made history by being the first female anchor on a TV news show (on ABC News in 1976) and conducting some of the most watched interviews of all time. Her fame was so complete that “Saturday Night Live’s” Gilda Radner impersonated her as “Baba Wawa,” fondly mocking those blurred “r’s” of hers. (Early on, Walters had been told, by none other than Don Hewitt — who would launch CBS’s “60 Minutes” — that she’d never make it as an on-air presence because of her unusual speech patterns and her relatively ordinary looks.)

Katherine Rosman, a star features writer for the New York Times, recalled being aware of Walters well before coming to New York City as a “coffee-fetching assistant” for Elle magazine in the mid-1990s.

“Back when I was a young journalist trying to imagine a career for myself, Barbara Walters was an avatar of what was possible,” Rosman told me. A key component was the wide range of Walters’s work. She not only interviewed a multitude of entertainment figures but also world leaders, politicians and business moguls.

In 1989, Walters went to Tripoli for ABC’s “20/20” to interview the Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, memorably telling him at one point that some people thought he was crazy. In 1990, she challenged New York City real estate developer Donald Trump about his finances, noting that his glowing accounts of his success did not align with the perspective of the bankers she had checked with.

5 interviews that show Barbara Walters was a master journalist

Even those endless interviews with celebrities were rarely pure froth. In 1987, she got Sean Connery to expound on his shameful conviction that women sometimes deserve a little slapping around, indicating to her audience with her gape-mouthed response that she was appalled even as she continued to coax more damning detail out of Connery.

“The signal to women reporters had long been that you could be serious or you could be interesting,” Rosman reflected. “She refused to be pigeonholed like that, and she allowed for many women who came after her to be both.”

She had the gift of being able to make an intimate connection with her wide-eyed gaze and soft voice while never shying from the uncomfortable question — in fact, it became her trademark. She once pointed out to a gaggle of Kardashians that their fame was confounding, given their apparent lack of any real talent.

On Twitter late Friday, Monica Lewinsky recalled both aspects of Walters’s approach.

“I knew Barbara for over half of my life,” she wrote, describing meeting her in the spring of 1998 in the midst of the furor over the former White House intern’s affair with then-president Bill Clinton, ultimately leading to his impeachment. “I remarked that this was the first time I’d ever been in serious trouble … got good grades, didn’t do drugs, never shoplifted.”

Walters, “without missing a beat,” Lewinsky wrote, offered her some advice: “Monica, next time shoplift.”

Lewinsky said they kept in touch for many years; over lunch a few years ago, Walters peppered her with questions in the signature Walters style: “so tell me, Monica, how do you feel … ?”

Toward the end of her storied career, Walters seemed to recognize that television wasn’t necessarily bringing us the best of journalism and sometimes suggested she might even feel responsible for its slide into mindless sensationalism. Her work spawned a legion of less talented copycats in the increasingly tawdry world of infotainment, yet she clearly hoped to inspire higher standards.

When Michele Martin of NPR asked her in 2008 what women in the media business should be doing to follow up on Walters’ accomplishments (“Is there anything that women of my generation should be doing to build on what it is that you started, that you would like to see us do?”) the veteran broadcaster gave voice to some qualms while also giving credit where due.

“I think you are. I think you are in all fields. I think you’re in every war zone,” Walters replied. But she added that she deplored the apparent lack of interest by most Americans in world affairs or global leaders: “We’re so celebrity-oriented, and I just didn’t want to do those stories any more.”

She added that she hoped women journalists would do more meaningful work — “the kind of journalism that really makes a difference, that isn’t just screaming and yelling and opinions and so forth.”

Whatever fuel Walters may have provided for that raging fire, her legacy should be seen largely as a positive one. Driven, ambitious, indomitable, seemingly undeterred by the inevitable ups and downs of half a century in a cutthroat business driven by ratings and corporate profit, she succeeded wildly and memorably. And more than that, she served as a vivid example of persistence and accomplishment. For those who would become famous and those who merely were forging their own quieter paths, Barbara Walters inspired.

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