Barbara Walters, the trailblazing broadcast news anchor, has died at the age of 93, leaving a legacy for all women.
“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by loved ones. She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists but for all women,” her spokesperson said.
She changed the face of television literally as the first female co-host of NBC’s Today” show in 1974, and later as the first female anchor on an evening news broadcast, and then by taking her interviews on the road creating specials that audiences did not want to miss. Her specials always had high ratings.
Ms. Walters paved the way for women in the male bastion of broadcast news.
She started off behind the scenes as a writer in the 1950’s, and later sat on the morning anchor set at NBC, but was only allowed to ask one question after her co-host Frank McGee asked three questions.
Clever and competitive, she created the interviews off-set and worked assiduously to nail “the get” interviews with Heads of State, politicians, celebrities, and even with notorious murderers worldwide.
She interviewed world leaders from Egypt’s Anwar Sadat to Israel’s Menachem Begin and Henry Kissinger to Patrick Swayze and Elton John. She interviewed Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, Monica Lewinsky, and Barbara Streisand. She had the first interview with Rose Kennedy after the assassination of her son, Robert F. Kennedy. She traveled to India with Jacqueline Kennedy and to Iran to cover the Shah’s lavish party.
She asked questions that were personal, challenging and hostile to some, and was most proud when she pulled out the most unexpected answers from her guests.
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Barbara Walters broke the glass-ceiling for the generations of women who followed in her footsteps.
She was known to reach out to those of us who worked at the networks as we were climbing the ladder.
I was fortunate to have been one of them. I met Barbara when I began my career at ABC News.
She had been hired by the legendary Roone Arledge who not only was head of ABC SPORTS, but was hired simultaneously to be head of ABC NEWS.
Instantly, Walters became known as the million-dollar-baby with a five-year contract for one million annually.
Arledge’s was paying large salaries to lure exceptional and proven talent to ABC News in those days because ABC’s ratings were third after CBS and NBC, and Roone was determined to flip that.
In the “old glory days” of television before CNN, MSNBC and FOX, when only CBS, NBC, and ABC offered news and competed like dancers in a West Side Story Broadway production, the stars of the network were men. Some wanted to keep it that way, but Barbara was determined to compete with the men and Roone was known to recognize talent.
Barbara’s strategy was brilliant. She booked the interviews and exposed the human touch and vulnerabilities of her guests.
Barbara was a woman who took no prisoners when competing, was a perfectionist, did her homework, and worked harder than most to be prepared and all the while breaking the glass ceiling for other women. She mentored a lot of us – those in front of the camera and those behind the camera.
When I tried to convince my later bosses at CNN that we needed to have a daily half-hour show on politics in the 1980s, they initially rejected that idea even though we were broadcasting reruns and were the first 24-hour news channel.
I confided in Barbara Walters who told me, “Take the idea to the advertising team in New York.”
I did and the rest is history as in INSIDE POLITICS.
When CNN refused to give me a raise at that time and used the excuse that I was in the third year of my four year contract and the head of CNN did not want to set a precedent, Barbara told me, “Then walk and take your rolodex with you,” as did my former boss at ABC News, the legendary Hal Bruno, whom Roone also brought on from Newsweek.
I followed their advice because there were far higher mountains to climb.
Barbara was not intimidated or impressed with celebrity or fame. She grew up around stars. Her father was in the entertainment world.
She lived by the motto that when interviewing anyone – make it memorable and ask the questions that everyone wants answered, and never be afraid of being called “hostile” when probing or challenging anyone who is willing to sit for an interview.
She was aware that building the space for women in broadcast news would be her legacy and for that, she was very proud and grateful.
Barbara wanted women to succeed.
And, for that, we, who followed in her footsteps, and benefited from her tenacity and generosity, as I did, are forever grateful for her courage for paving the way for all of us.