Barbara Walters: Why she's the most influential TV journalist of the modern age
I always say Barbara Walters.
That's because she pioneered the mixture of emotion and news, serious and celebrity, personal and political that drives every modern TV news program, from the today show and 20/20 to Nancy Grace, Access Hollywood and beyond.
On my new Sunday Floridian page devoted to blog-like items about media -- It's also called The Feed -- I presented a necessarily shortened interview with the 78-year-old master. But when I called a swanky hotel in Miami last week to ask about her roots in journalism (the excuse was promoting her new memoir, Audition), i got a lot more than three one-paragraph answers. And I even got a compliment for my questions from a woman once called the mistress of the impertinent question.
Specifically, I wanted to know about the celebrity interview special that started it all; a sit down with Barbra Streisand, her then boyfriend, hairdresser Jon Peters, and President-elect jimmy Carter and his wife.
"Professionally, they saved my career. When I came to ABC I was such a failure as the first female anchor of a network news anchor. I was paired with Harry Reasoner, who just didn’t want a partner. Part of of that contract was to do four specials a year. I was going to combine, the way newsmagazines did, a political person and a celebrity. The first one had Barbra Streisand and her then boyfriend Jon Peters, and President elect and Mrs. Jimmy Carter. And it was a huge success. When we did these things, we saw that the ratings went up for the celebrity and down for the political person. So more and more, these interviews became celebrity specials. They were the forerunner of the newsmagazine shows. Our specials worked over the years, and ours were the only ones that did. Other people tried them, including Oprah, but they never worked.”
Was that mix of subjects something you learned from 13 years working on the Today show (1962 to 1975)?
“To get to do the first interview with the president elect, Jimmy Carter, I just thought was a great coup – I thought it was a good mix. I still do. But people seem to want the celebrities – certainly today. I have a whole chapter in the book on heads of state because I think I interviewed most of the important heads of state – but we’re not interested in that today. Most of the newsmagazines don't do it. They don’t know who the heads of state are, and they don’t care.”
Wasn't that the special where you asked the Carters if they were going to sleep in a double bed?
“That was not 'what done me in' as Eliza Doolittle would say. It was at the end of (that interview) when I said, looking at him solemnly, 'Be wise to us governor, be good to us,' where I just got creamed. Just destroyed by reviewers and my colleagues. I said later if Walter Cronkite had said that with his mellifluous voice he might have gotten away it, but I was having a very hard time in general. But the amazing thing was, that this special got this huge rating. So the audience loved it and then we just kept doing them – four a year. I was (called) a million-dollar baby, people saying I was getting $1-million to do the news. But I wasn't, I was getting the same $500,000 as (co-anchor) Harry Reasoner. The other $500,000 was for doing four, one-hour sponsored prime time specials. For them, it was a bargain. And then it was after that that things changed and I went on to do the most important interviews of my career – Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Fidel Castro, the Shah of Iran and more.”
Were inquiries like the double bed just an attempt to make news, or an attempt to humanize these politicians?
"I did the first live interview with Richard Nixon – I started out by asking him foreign policy questions because he was very knowledgeable. Then I was trying to humanize him. So I thought I’ll give him a chance to get some empathy. I asked how he got through the whole experience (of Watergate). He said to me, 'Get serious Barbara.' I said "I am serious, Mr. President.' Now today, there isn’t a personal question that hasn’t been asked."
You've been called the mistress of the impertinent question.
""With a woman you can say she's impertinent. With a man you say he's courageous. You have to take a deep breath and sit and judge what the atmosphere is. I remember asking Vladimir Putin if he ever killed anybody. But I had to wait until I could sense how the interview was, would he walk out? But I didn’t usually do – I didn’t ask about family and children. Today, the kind of personal questions that are asked…um, I just think, 'My, how far we’ve come.' Well, we have debates in which have to wait a half hour (to get the issues).”
Sounds as if you're saying the kind of journalism you helped invent has gotten out of control.
“I don’t think its gotten out of control. Times have changed. I worked very hard at getting interviews with the heads of states. I think of all the time I spent in the Middle East doing interviews with people like Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan and Muammar Quaddafi and Saddam Hussein, those are very important interviews. I’m very proud of them. And I was also doing the celebrity interviews; what it showed, was you could do both. If people respected you, you could do both.”
What was your technique in interviewing these people?
(mistress of the impertinent question). “With Quaddafi, I said “Do you know there are some people who think that you’re mad?' I don’t say I think that I think you’re mad. He laughed and more or less answered the question. With Yeltsin, I asked 'You know about the rumors -- I’m sure you’ve read them sir -- that you drink too much.' There are ways of couching it. Often I’ll ask 'What’s the biggest misconception about you?' and they’ll bring the (controversial) matters up.”
You've also been called a ruthless opportunist with an impeccable sense of timing. How do you react to that?
“I like the complimentary descriptions better than the negative ones. I can live with that. One of the reasons that I wrote this book was because young journalists, especially females, come up and say, 'Oh I wish I had your life…thinking it just been one long climb up. It hasn’t been. There have been success, there has been failures, personally and professionally. I said to them you have to have the whole package. The idea that I had a plan in my mind, that I was going to have this great, glorious career is absurd. Nobody has that kind of plan – I got on the Today show by accident. I was hired for 13 weeks as a writer on the show, I stayed for 13 years. I went to ABC and was a failure."
But you seem to have a knack for turning setback into success, even on your daytime show The View, when co-host Rosie O'Donnell was picking fights with everyone from Donald Trump to Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
“The first nine years were very peaceful. We had two rocky years, but even the rocky years created so much publicity. I had hoped that Rosie would stay on; that was Rosie’s decision...(When she was on) it felt like a rollercoaster. Rosie has, by her own admission, emotional issues, as she would say. I think Rosie came on saying to me that she wanted to ride the bus -- she wanted to be a passenger and not the driver. And then when she came on, she wanted to be he driver, and there were some problems with that.”