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They marched in a high-gloss, high-heeled, impeccably tailored, sheath-dressed glory parade set to honor their godmother. Oprah announced the names of their families: Connie Chung, Jane Pauley, Katie Couric, Savannah Guthrie, Gretchen Carlson, Gayle King, Maria Shriver, Diane Sawyer, Hoda Kotb, and a dozen others, women who came to dominate and define television news.
It was 2014, and Barbara Walters was retiring from ABC’s “The View,” which she created and produced as well as co-hosted — her final game-changing move in a five-decade streak as a near-constant presence on television. Amidst air kisses and genuine hugs from her fellow broadcasters during her on-air farewell to the daytime talk show, there were words of praise about how important Walters was to them and their careers.
And matter she did. Not just to the television industry’s own rarefied ranks of women but to men and women alike in the media business — and to the millions of women worldwide who see her as an example of possibility and difference 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. This made Walters “a shining example of possibility, demonstrating how a woman can realize herself.”
Barbara Walters, tireless follower of TV newsmaker ‘Gate’, dies at 93
It helped that Walters was famous not for her beauty-pageant looks but for her talent. Eshelman would become the teenage girl of the 1970s who would become associated with New Miss magazine as a feminist lifeline, but before her, there was Walters.
He was led by his sheer eminence, the fact of his existence.
Walters, who died Friday at age 93, made history by becoming the first female anchor on a TV news show (on ABC News in 1976) and conducting the most-watched interview of all time. His reputation was so complete that “Saturday Night Live’s” Gilda Radner impersonated him as “Daddy Wawa,” mocking his slurred “r.” (Initially, Walter was told by none other than Don Hewitt, who was the CBS )’s “60 Minutes” that he would never make it as an on-air appearance due to his unusual speech patterns and his relatively ordinary appearance.)
Kathryn Rossman, a star feature writer for the New York Times, thinks she was well aware of Walters before she came to New York City as a “coffee-bringing assistant” for Elle magazine in the mid-1990s.
“When I was a young journalist trying to envision a career for myself, Barbara Walters was an embodiment of what was possible,” Roseman told me. A key element was the wide range of Walters’ work. He has not only interviewed many entertainment personalities but also world leaders, politicians and business moguls.
In 1989, Walters traveled to Tripoli for ABC’s “20/20” to interview Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, at one point memorably telling him that some people thought he was crazy. In 1990, he challenged New York City real estate developer Donald Trump on his finances, noting that his glowing accounts of success did not align with the views of bankers who checked with him.
Even those endless interviews with celebrities were rarely pure foam. In 1987, he got Sean Connery to explain his shameful conviction that women deserve a little slapping sometimes, with his facial expressions to his audience indicating that he was shocked even as he continued to narrate more lurid details from Connery.
“The signal to women journalists has long been that you can be serious or you can be attractive,” Rossman reflected. “She refused to be pigeonholed as such, and she allowed many women who came after her to be both.”
Never shying away from uncomfortable questions, she had the gift of being able to establish an intimate connection with her wide-eyed gaze and soft voice – in fact, it became her trademark. He once pointed out to a gaggle of Kardashians that their fame was misleading, given their lack of real talent.
On Twitter late Friday, Monica Lewinsky recalled both sides of Walters’ view.
“I knew Barbara for more than half of my life,” he wrote, describing meeting her in the spring of 1998 amid furore over the former White House intern’s affair with then-President Bill Clinton, which eventually led to his impeachment. “I commented that this was the first time I’d ever been in serious trouble … got good grades, didn’t do drugs, never shoplifted.”
Walter, “without missing a beat,” Lewinsky wrote, gave her some advice: “Monica, shoplift next time.”
Lewinsky said they kept in touch for years; Over lunch a few years ago, Walters asked her, Walters-style: “So tell me, Monica, how are you feeling…?”
Towards the end of his storied career, Walters felt that television wasn’t necessarily bringing us the best journalism, and sometimes suggested that he might even feel responsible for the slide in senseless sensibility. His work spawned a legion of less talented copycats in the increasingly tawdry world of infotainment, yet he clearly hoped to inspire high standards.
In 2008 she was asked by NPR’s Michelle Martin what women in the media business should do to follow Walters’ achievements (“What should women of my generation do to build on what you started? Want to see us do?” ), the veteran broadcaster voiced some outrage and gave credit where it’s due.
“I thought you were. I thought you were in every field. I thought you were in every war zone,” Walters replied. But he added that he lamented most Americans’ lack of interest in world affairs or global leaders: “We’re so celebrity-oriented, and I don’t want to do these stories anymore.”
She added that she hoped women journalists would do more meaningful work — “the kind of journalism that really makes a difference, that’s not just yelling and screaming and giving opinions.”
Whatever fuel Walter may provide, his legacy should be seen as largely positive. Driven, ambitious, indomitable, seemingly impervious to half a century of inevitable ups and downs in a cutthroat business driven by ratings and corporate profits, he succeeded spectacularly and memorably. And more than that, he served as a shining example of perseverance and achievement. For those who would become famous and those who were merely making their own quiet path, Barbara Walters was inspired.
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