Drawing the highest pay in the history of television broadcasting at the time, Barbara Walters (born 1931) became the first woman co-anchor of a network evening newscast. She developed to a high art the interviewing of public figures.
Barbara Walters was born to Dena (Selett) and Lou Walters. Her father operated a number of nightclubs, resulting in Barbara attending schools in Boston, New York, and Miami Beach. She earned a B.A. degree in English from Sarah Lawrence College (1954). After working briefly as a secretary she landed a job with NBC's (the National Broadcasting Company's) New York affiliate WRCA-TV where she quickly rose to producer and writer. She also held various writing and public relations jobs, including a stint as women's-program producer at WPIX-TV in New York.
Her abilities and experience in research, writing, filming, and editing earned her a job as news and public affairs producer for CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) television. There she wrote materials for noted personalities who appeared on the CBS morning show that competed with NBC's Today program. She left CBS because she believed further advancement was unlikely.
In 1961 she was hired by NBC as a writer with an occasional on-the-air feature for the Today show. Within three years Walters became an on-camera interviewer and persuaded such notables as Mamie Eisenhower, Anwar Sadat, and H. R. Haldeman to appear with her.
Meanwhile, a number of different "show-business" women held the post as the "Today girl," but none held news credentials. Mainly they engaged in small talk and read commercials. Some at NBC began to think a different kind of woman might help the show. When the spot was unexpectedly vacated, Walters was given the "Today girl" slot on a trial basis. The public readily accepted this bright, on-the-air newswoman, who also continued to write and produce much of her own material. A few months later Hugh Downs said Walters was the best thing that had happened to the Today show during his time as host. They would later be teamed on ABC's program 20/20 as competition to CBS's Sixty Minutes.
Today feature stories by Walters included socially significant topics, and frequently she got on-the-spot experience which gave her reports even more credibility. As her reputation grew, NBC made her a radio commentator on Emphasis and Monitor. She also participated in such NBC specials as "The Pill" and "The Sexual Revolution" (1967), and in 1969 she covered the investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales.
Finally in 1974 Walters was named co-host of the Today show. By then, her status as a broadcaster had risen to such heights that she had twice been named to Harper's Bazaar's list of "100 Women of Accomplishment" (1967 and 1971), Ladies Home Journal's "75 Most Important Women" (1970), and Time's "200 Leaders of the Future" (1974). As the most influential woman on television, others soon vied for her talents.
In 1976 she accepted a million-dollar-a-year contract for five years to move to ABC, where she became television's first network anchor-woman, the most prestigious job in television journalism. She also anchored and produced four prime-time specials and sometimes hosted or appeared on the network's other news and documentary programs. Her contract stirred professional criticism and jealousy. It not only doubled her income from NBC and her syndicated show, Not For Women Only, but it also made her the highest-paid newscaster in history at that time. (Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Harry Reasoner then received about $400,000.) Reasoner, with whom she was to co-anchor, seemed especially miffed at first but later was mollified.
Executives of other networks fumed that their established anchors might demand salary increases, questioned what they perceived as a "show-biz" tint to the sober task of news reporting, and questioned whether the public would accept a woman news-anchor. (ABC's private polls before they made their record offer indicated only 13 percent preferred a male anchor, and they knew her presence could easily increase advertising revenues far exceeding her salary.)
Despite Walters' tart, probing interviewing techniques, she seldom seemed to alienate the person she was interviewing. She revealed some of the secrets of her success in her book How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything (1970). Others attributed her interviewing success to her uncanny ability to ask primarily those questions which the public would want answered.
Still, Walters was not without her critics. Some interview-subjects said her nervousness distracted them. Others claimed she was so eager that disastrous mistakes occurred, citing the instance when she grabbed another network's microphone as she dashed to get a unique interview. Washington press corps members charged that she acted more as a "star" than as a reporter on presidential trips. However, her professional admirers outnumbered her detractors. Walter Cronkite noted her special interviewing talents. Sally Quinn, former rival on CBS Morning News, commented how "nice" Walters was to her.
Walters' personal life held considerable interest to the public. Her brief marriage to businessman Bob Katz was annulled; her 13-year marriage to Lee Guber, a theatrical producer, ended in divorce. Still they remained congenial, sharing mutual love for their daughter, Jacqueline Dena. In 1985 she married Merv Adelson, who had also previously been wed twice.
Walters' elevation to top-paid broadcaster was credited with raising the status of other women journalists. Her own prowess as a broadcaster exploring socially-important issues and as top-notch interviewer were undeniable. In addition, she excelled at bringing to the television public reluctant interview-subjects that ranged from show business personalities to heads of state.
Walters has had a reputation for often being the first to interview world leaders. During the 1996 presidential campaign she interviewed the first African American Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, after his retirement. She has also had exclusive interviews with both Christopher Dardin and Robert Shapiro of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, noted by the media as one of the most controversial murder trials of the twentieth century. Walters also had exclusive interviews with billionaire David Geffen and with Christopher Reeves following the horseback riding fall that left him paralyzed.
In 1996 Walters celebrated 20 years with ABC. At the time, she was earning $10 million per year.
Biographical data for Barbara Walters is primarily found in her book How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything (1970). In addition to the periodicals cited in the biography see Newsweek (May 19, 1969); Reader's Digest (May 1974); Vogue (June 1975); Newsweek (May 3, 1976); Time (May 3, 1976); and Ladies Home Journal (July 1983; June 1984). □