Renowned American Journalist and Interviewer
In the early years of TV broadcasting, viewers naturally came to know their favorite commentators and reporters, many of whom transferred from radio. And almost exclusively all male, since female news reporters usually just covered women’s issues—fashion or domestic subjects. However, over time women gradually took their rightful place in front of the camera—to keep Americans informed about current events. One of the pioneers in this area was journalist Barbara Walters. Working on camera for more than 50 years, even after her announced retirement, she continued to frequently appear on special programs before her death in late 2022.
However, although she appeared on news programs, in addition she became perhaps best known for her many TV interviews of the famous—and infamous. As Alessandra Stanley wrote in the December 31, 2022 New York Times at the time of her death: “In one-on-one interviews, she was best known for delving, with genteel insistence, into the private lives and emotional states of movie stars, heads of state and other high-profile subjects.”
Born in New York City in September, 1929, and the daughter of Russian immigrants, Barbara Walter came from a family involved in the entertainment business. Her father Lou Walters, who had operated various entertainment venues, had been a Broadway producer, as well as manager of theater companies. A favorite childhood memory for Barbara, was how her father would take her to a theatrical performance rehearsal, where the performers gave her undivided attention. Barbara attended both public and private schools—possibly depending on the ups and downs of her father’s professional life.
After college graduation in 1951, she started her professional career working in an advertising agency then later she was employed by a major New York NBC television station. There she handled publicity and press releases, and produced a short children’s program. After working with other TV stations she became a writer on a CBS morning program in 1955.
By 1961 she became associated with the NBC-TV early morning program The Today Show as a writer/researcher and then she began to appear on camera as the “Today girl.” This label was attached until 1964 to a young woman, usually an entertainer, who reported on fashion, lifestyle and the weather—in effect handling the lighter aspects of the news. (In fact, one time “Today Girls” had been actresses Lee Meriweather, Betsy Palmer and Florence Henderson.) Later Walters called them “the tea pourers” since their on-camera time seemed to be just to support the male newscasters. However, within a year Walters was reporting and writing her own stories, and doing interviews. Among her early on-air profiles were as a nun and a Playboy Playmate.
Then in 1971 Walters became the host of her own NBC morning program that followed Today and in 1974 she was named as co-host of Today—the first American woman to such a position on U.S. news programs.
A few years later Walters transferred to the ABC network where she was to anchor their Evening News, the first American woman to do that. However, there were personal difficulties with her associates and in 1979 she left that program to become co-host with old friend Hugh Downs on the ABC television magazine program 20-20. She also appeared as a commentator on other ABC programs, including being the moderator for presidential events during the 1976 campaigns.
Walters also began in 1976 her series of Barbara Walters Specials which usually consisted of her interviewing celebrities and other public figures. It was in that capacity that she became known for what one source called her “personality journalism” as well as “scoop” interviews.
Ms. Stanley wrote: “At a time when politicians tended to be reserved and celebrities elusive, Ms. Walters coaxed kings, presidents and matinee idols, to answer startlingly intimate questions.” Among her first subjects were President-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, and later in a separate program Barbra Streisand. The next year she hosted a TV interview with two international leaders—Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Al Sadat—then participants in a prominent peace agreement between their counties. She then conducted television interviews with other world leaders from Iran, Great Britain, China and India, among the figures in the international news. However, she also interviewed popular entertainment personalities such as Michael Jackson and Katharine Hepburn.
It was her conversation with Ms. Hepburn that elicited a bit of a snicker from some critics for what seemed like a silly even frivolous question which supposedly Walters asked the actress. It was reportedly, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”
However, what actually occurred was a question that came from a line of conversation meant to bring out the real person of the subject. Hepburn had remarked that she felt like a strong tree at her age. “What kind of tree?” Walters asked and Hepburn answered that she thought it was an oak because they didn’t get Dutch elm disease. Actually, according to Walters, even getting permission for the interview took quite a time – possibly because Hepburn was known to be reclusive and definitely wanted to meet Walters before the questioning.
Her 1977 interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro brought an interesting exchange. Walters had been in Cuba for a few days and found the controversial leader to be charming and humorous, but she had one hard question. She asked him about life in Cuba:, “You allow no dissent … your media is under state control.” He responded: “Barbara, our concept of freedom of the press is not yours. If you asked us if a newspaper could appear against socialism, I can say honestly no, it cannot appear. It would not be allowed by the party, the government or the people. In that sense we do not have the freedom of the press that you possess in the U.S. And we are very satisfied about that.” At the end of her program she told her TV audience, “What we disagreed on most profoundly is the meaning of freedom—and that is what truly separates us.”
A 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky, who had a major part in the scandals of President Bill Clinton in the earlier 1990s, brought up an interesting incident. Walters maintained her reputation for probing and imaginative questions when she asked, “What will you tell your children when you have them?” And Lewinsky responded with honesty “Mommy made a big mistake.” At that point apparently Walters turned to her audience and said, “And that is the understatement of the year.”
Later Walters became a panelist on the talk program The View and was also the co-creator and co-executive producer. The program debuted in 1997 and was designed to be, according to one source, “a forum for women of different generations, backgrounds and views.” In 2003 she won a Daytime Emmy award for this.
So was there anyone she wanted to interview but never did? According to Walters, there were two: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Walters retired in May, 2014 but continued to appear before the camera intermittently. This came after she had had open heart surgery in 2010. She died at her New York City home in late December, 2022 at age 93.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.