Barbara Walters outlasted 'em all. Good on her (as the Aussies say).
The undisputed queen of TV news is retiring this Friday at age 84. ABC, the network with which she has been associated for the past 38 years, has marked the occasion with an on-air special saluting her work and by naming one of the buildings where its news division is housed after Walters.
Any way you slice it, Walters was a pioneer and deserves to have her on-air career of more than 50 years celebrated.
Following several post-college jobs in journalism and PR, including producing local TV shows in New York, she joined NBC’s venerable “Today Show” as a writer and researcher in 1961, when television was still in its infancy. By year’s end, she was on-air, writing and producing her own reports.
Back then, news was still very much a man’s game. In the early 1960s, you could count off on the fingers of one hand the women doing serious reporting on network news shows: Nancy Dickerson, Pauline Frederick and Marlene Sanderson. Walters had to wait 13 long years — anchor Frank McGee objected to promoting her — before she was named co-host of “Today” in 1974, the first woman to hold that title. (Before Walters, the show’s main female on-air talent was referred to as the “Today Girl.”)
Of the early women pioneers on TV news, Walters went the farthest and, by several decades, lasted the longest. Like Joan Crawford, it was blazingly apparent right up there on the screen that she wanted success more than anyone else and would work harder and with greater focus to get it.
It wasn’t easy. In 1976, she became the first woman to sit nightly in the big chair at the anchor desk on an evening newscast. ABC signed her for a then record-breaking $1 million to co-anchor with Harry Reasoner. The veteran newsman felt she had no business sharing a desk with him and the tension between the two was palpable.
ABC ended the experiment after two years, but Walters, rather than slink away to lick her wounds, continued to reign at the network. She fronted the long-running “20/20” and other shows, straddling with ease the worlds of hard news and infotainment. She interviewed major heads of state (Anwar Sadat, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Fidel Castro and many more), asking them the tough questions, but also movie stars (she famously asked Katharine Hepburn, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?”).
In 1997, when Walters was already well past the usual age of retirement, she connected with a whole new set of viewers when she created, produced and starred on a new ABC daytime show, “The View.” The show, which is still running, featured Walters and a panel of other women chewing over the day’s hot topics and interviewing guests ranging from presidents to reality TV stars. It turned into a huge hit.
During her five-plus decades in our living rooms, Walters became both a legend and a punch line. She earned the grudging respect of even her most virulent critics for her dogged pursuit of stories and ability to land the big gets when it came to interviews. But she also became a punch line for the softball questions she lobbed at celebrities on her annual pre-Oscar and end-of-year shows.
In the early heyday of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” Gilda Radner struck comic gold with her "Baba Wawa" impersonation, zeroing in on Walters’ slight speech impediment. Radner was only the first in what would be a long string of SNL performers making like Walters, a fact the show highlighted last week during its “Weekend Update” segment. After a clips montage aired of Radner, Cheri Oteri, Rachel Dratch and other SNL vets putting on ever blonder wigs to lampoon Walters over the past nearly 40 years, the news legend herself turned up in person to crack a few good-natured jokes at her own expense (“Your place or mine, Brokaw?”).
Looking back, Walters’ career is unprecedented in its length and achievement. By decades, she outlasted all the men who were so dismissive for so many years of her talent. And in the process, she taught all of us some valuable lessons in persistence, hard work and doing what you love for as long as you still love doing it.
Baba Wawa, we’re going to miss you.