I was never a fan of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It might have worked as an SNL skit but the jokes have already been said decades before. In many ways, Anchorman was a satire of the relationship between Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters on the ABC Evening News. Reasoner with his white hair and slightly tanned skin was your typical middle-aged TV anchorman of the era. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman was based on Reasoner.
Walters, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence, went to go work for The Today Show in her early 30s in 1961. She started out as a writer and researcher before working herself up to what was called a “Today Girl,” which was reserved for the women on the show who handled the lighter stories. Some people call them “fluff.” Other people call them the “Cute Puppy Dog” stories. But if you were a woman journalist, you were expected to handle these stories about something like the Sweet Adelines singing at Carnegie Hall, while the man journalist went to go state prison to interview a convicted felon who feels he’s innocent.
In most regards, women journalist who did handle the hard stories were thought to be like Helen Thomas. Walters with her 1950s housewife appearance wasn’t expected to ask a senator about a scandal. It seemed to be the same when I was in college at Georgia Southern University where the pretty, petite preppy girls all went into public relations. Journalism was often considered “what the ugly women and lesbians” went into.
Walters called the “Today Girls” “tea pourers” and she became a reporter-at-large within a year of working there. But she still had to fight to get interviews and report on stories the rest of the decade before she had her own show Not For Women Only which started in 1971 and ran until 1976 when she moved to ABC. Even though she got along well with Hugh Downs (who she would later pair up again with on 20/20), Frank McGee was a different story. He often refused to do joint interviews with Walters unless he got to ask the first three questions. She was only named co-host after McGee died in 1974.
And things didn’t get better at ABC Evening News with Reasoner, even though he tried to argue it had nothing to do with Walters being a woman. “I’ve worked in journalism for women and with women for years,” he said in an interview. “For two years I did a CBS morning news program with a woman. I feel they’re no worse than men are.” Reasoner left after two years but said it was more over the management at the station.
With 20/20 starting in 1979, Walters and Downs worked together for the next 20 years. She would stay on the show until 2004. Over time, she interviewed a Who’s Who of politicians, celebrities and notorious people. Her primetime specials became so popular, she often scooped her contemporary colleagues like Sam Donaldson, Ted Koppel and Dan Rather. She interviewed Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn after he was elected President. She interviewed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat who called her “Ba-bar-ah” which she liked. However, when she interviewed Ricky Martin in 2000, she regretted years later questioning his sexuality. Martin didn’t come out publicly until 2010.
The list of interviewees includes people such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Fidel Castro, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Jackson, Katherine Hepburn and Indira Ghandi to name a few. She often interviewed people during specials set to air before the Oscars. One of her famous interviews was with Monica Lewinsky on March 3, 1999 that drew 74 million viewers.
As the 1990s and 20th Century came to a close, Walters began The View, which she’d co-host. It was a talk show for women and hosted by women. While initially it was heavily criticized and parodied, it survived the criticism and still remains in its 26th season. And of course, it led to imitators such as The Talk on CBS and The Five on Fox News.
On Saturday Night Live, Walters was parodied by another pioneer, Gilda Radner, in the Baba Wawa skits, which were Radner donned an outrageous bouffant wig and exaggerated her R’s as W’s. Initially, Walters wasn’t a fan until she noticed her daughter, Jacqueline Dena Gruber, watch an episode and laughing. Her daughter told her “lighten up” and then she did. If Jimmy Carter could laugh at himself on SNL, so could Walters.
Walters dated controversial lawyer Roy Cohn in college, who she remained friendly with later in life. She credited Cohn with helping her and her second husband, Lee Gruber, adopt their daughter. She testified as a character witness at Cohn’s disbarment trial in 1986. She was also married to Marv Adelson, CEO of Lorimar Television, from 1981 to 1984 and again from 1986 to 1992.
For the most part, Walters forced TV bigwigs to accept that women in broadcasting were here to stay and they shouldn’t be regulated to the fluff stories. She opened the door for all the big names in broadcasting – Oprah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddows, Savannah Guthrie, S.E. Cupp, Connie Chung, Meredith Viera, Robin Roberts, etcs. The list goes on and on. Even if you look at SNL itself, Radner’s co-star Jane Curtin was a co-host on Weekend Update followed years later Tina Fey was the co-host of Weekend Update and then Amy Poehler as her co-host.
It’s been my experience in journalism that many women journalist are sometimes better than their man colleagues. I think it’s mostly because too many men in certain positions still feel a resentment to women who aren’t secretaries. So, when they realize they can’t use their outdated “charm” on them, they’re caught off-guard. And that’s part of the reason those on the right hate the mainstream media. Also, sometimes women are easier to talk to about certain thing. I really can’t see Donaldson or Rather interviewing Lewinsky without some major cringe factor.
Fox News, OAN and Newsmax use their woman reporters as eye candy. If you were to look at the issues with Roger Ailes, it’s obvious he hired women based on how they looked rather than what they could do. I have a lot of issues with Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and Andrea Tantaros on journalistic integrity but they didn’t deserve to be treated like they did.
I follow a lot of other journalists on social media. Some I’ve worked with and others who I haven’t. When news of Walters death on Dec. 30 broke, one of them posted that the entire newsroom stopped what they were doing and watched it on TV. That’s a legacy to have.
What do you think? Please comment.