BARBARA WALTERS’S announcement this week that she would soon bring her long career to a close elicited the obligatory tributes to her as a trailblazer for women and an exemplary figure in broadcast journalism.
But those plaudits may not go far enough. Whether or not Ms. Walters was exemplary, she may be the single most important TV personality of the last 50 years — just not for the reasons we’ve heard. More than any other journalist, she tore down the wall separating news from entertainment, the serious from the frivolous, the public figure from the celebrity.
Ms. Walters was always more of an entertainer than a journalist, at least as traditionalists understand the latter term. Her father, Lou Walters, was a talent agent and nightclub operator. She grew up within the nimbus of show business, and it was partly because news executives were intrigued by her showbiz connections that she got a foothold in TV.
Unlike many of her colleagues, she entered the medium not as a reporter but as a booker, landing guests for a CBS morning show, after working as a P.R. flack. When she decamped to NBC’s “Today” show, her initial assignment was producing a fashion segment for the model Anita Colby. But Ms. Walters scarcely hid her own desire to be on camera — not, it seems, because she had serious journalistic ambitions, but because she had ambitions to perform.
True, “Today” wasn’t exactly a sanctuary of journalistic high-mindedness, even before Ms. Walters; when she did get her first on-camera break, in 1964 as a “ ‘Today’ girl,” her predecessor wasn’t Walter Lippmann but the movie actress Maureen O’Sullivan, who had played Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan” films. But the program did separate its soft features and entertainment flippancies from its hard news segments and breaking news reports.ImageCredit…Kelsey Dake
It was Ms. Walters who integrated news and entertainment on “Today.” From early on, her stock in trade was the earnest celebrity interview, in which she would ask probing, personal, just-between-the-two-of-us questions, and in doing so began to erode the wall that separated the public from the private. In effect, she created a new style of voyeuristic interview, in which subjects were expected to expose themselves. The sobbing celebrity, divulging painful secrets, became a sort of trademark.
It was when Ms. Walters turned her gaze to political figures and world leaders that everything began to meld. In part, it was because these folks wanted the media spotlight that Ms. Walters and “Today” provided, so that they might have the opportunity to humanize themselves away from political reporters. Ms. Walters was happy to oblige. They received the same treatment from Ms. Walters as the movie stars she interviewed.
Still, this was a stealthy process of convergence until Ms. Walters left NBC in 1976 for the co-anchor chair of ABC’s network news broadcast. No one had previously sat in the anchor chair of any network news broadcast without journalistic training, without having spent years in the trenches. There was a hue and cry in the journalistic world that Ms. Walters was unqualified, that she was more a performer than a reporter (which was true), not least of all from her co-anchor Harry Reasoner, who viewed her with undisguised contempt.Editors’ Pick
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It got worse. Ms. Walters’s deal with ABC included specials in which she mixed celebrity and political figures; her first included Barbra Streisand, Ms. Streisand’s ex-boyfriend Jon Peters, and President-elect Jimmy Carter. It is hard to imagine Walter Cronkite anchoring the news and then interviewing Oscar nominees, as Ms. Walters did in her pre-Oscar specials, and even harder to imagine him describing Richard M. Nixon as “sexy,” as Ms. Walters once did.
And so it all changed. Outlets vied for interviews with newsmakers, the “gets,” and in so doing added to the story function of the news the revelatory function of the news: tell us all. And Ms. Walters remained the most tenacious of the getters. It was she who “got” Monica S. Lewinsky. “What will you tell your children when you have them?” she asked.
Traditionalists sounded as if it were the end of the world. In fact, it was the end of their world. News would never be the same. Ms. Walters obviously didn’t effect this change single-handedly — there were news executives eager to jazz up their divisions, especially Roone Arledge, onetime president of ABC News, who was Ms. Walters’s biggest admirer. But she transcended them all as both the symbol of what had happened as well as a moving force. “The View,” which Ms. Walters co-created, has become a destination for presidential contenders and even presidents amid the show’s gossip and blather. “There’s only one Barbara Walters,” said the head of ABC News, Ben Sherwood. But he’s wrong: it is a testament to Ms. Walters that there are now so many.