It’s the night before New Year’s Eve 2022, and my phone is blowing up with sad emojis. “Devastated?” “I’m so sorry.” “Oh no, Barbara!”
Oh no, is right. If Barbara Walters — who died at 93 after a career that changed TV and journalism in a way that no one else has or ever will — was still with us, she would have immediately asked for a different timeslot to announce her passing. Maybe a weekday morning, so that all living presidents could issue prompt statements, lauding her vast achievements. Wouldn’t that be better for ratings? There would need to be breaking-news banners on every network, along with a clip reel of her greatest interview hits, from Fidel Castro to Monica Lewinsky to Barack Obama. She’d request (OK, demand) a “20/20” special anchored by Oprah Winfrey, and tears from the co-hosts of “The View,” her surrogate TV daughters.
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Barbara Walters loved many things — but mostly she loved being on TV, being on TV and being on TV. And maybe as much as being on TV, she loved to win. And she did: over and over again, through all the glass ceilings that she shattered.
It’s known by anyone who saw her in action — because she repeated it so often — that Barbara served as the first female host of “Today” in 1974 and then scaled up to become the first woman co-anchor of the evening news in 1976 (a job that paid her $1 million annually but almost ended her career, because she was such a ratings dud with her forced partner, Harry Reasoner). She gained fame and acclaim through her specials, which featured tough sit-downs with heads of state and actors. We don’t have royalty in the United States, but Barbara was basically the queen of journalism. (She even wore a crown once in a skit she did after her 2014 retirement.)
I had the tremendous fortune of getting to know Barbara, my idol, when I wrote my book “Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of ‘The View.’” We’d spoken a few times before we sat down in 2015 for what would be the last interview Barbara ever gave. She was in good spirits that morning, meeting me at a hotel restaurant on the Upper East Side, near where she lived, having just had lunch with an old college friend.
Our conversation began, as she started every chat, with her asking me for some good gossip. We talked about Donald Trump, who was — can you believe it? — running for president. But she also wasn’t as clear as the other times I’d seen her. Some of her stories would trail off into a fog. She’d mix up names and then suddenly drop a bombshell — did I know that she almost hired Gayle King in 2007 to be the moderator of “The View” instead of Whoopi Goldberg? In fact, I did not.
Barbara was self-aware enough to acknowledge her legacy. She loved to say that she helped pave the way for other women on TV, from Katie Couric to Meredith Vieira to Hoda Kotb to her nemesis, Diane Sawyer. “What makes me feel good is when a young woman — it’s almost always a woman — says, ‘You influenced me and you’re the reason I became a journalist,’” she told me. “They watched, and they said, ‘If she could do it, I could do it.’”
But as many barriers that she broke in TV news, a large part of her legacy is now tied to a TV show that she created on a whim — one that she almost quit before it began. “How about this?” her executive producer Bill Geddie once told me. “How ironic is it that whenever somebody talks about Barbara Walters in articles, it’s never the Barbara Walters as the First Lady of journalism, or the Barbara Walters specials, or the Barbara Walters of ABC News, or Barbara Walters, the first female anchor. It’s always Barbara Walters, creator of ‘The View.’ You hear it all the time. It just makes me laugh. It’s not that I don’t think it was important. I just didn’t think it would be as important, given everything else she’s done.”
When Barbara launched “The View” in 1997, it was a sleepy program where four anonymous women — you only needed to know their first names: Meredith, Star, Joy and Debbie — joined her to discuss the headlines of the day. And it didn’t make much noise for a year, until Barbara fired Debbie on national TV, got spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” and suddenly found herself in the zeitgeist in a totally different way. Prior to “The View,” Barbara didn’t make jokes about sex or offer a glimpse into her personal life. “The View” made it acceptable, in a pre-Twitter world, for news anchors to express their opinions. But more important than that, it brought politics to daytime, to stay-at home moms who were underestimated by TV executives when it came to their intelligence.
Inadvertently, Barbara also created what could be accurately described as a reality TV show before “Survivor” hit the air. For whatever reason, “The View” quickly became a hotbed of intrigue for tabloids, which reported on outlandish behind-the-scenes “cat fights” and constant drama. Some of this was encouraged by Barbara, who leaked with the best of them — especially when she had to axe one of her TV daughters (like Star or, later, Rosie). When Barbara hired Elisabeth Hasselbeck, in 2003, as the show’s first Republican, direct from a stint on “Survivor,” she made one thing clear: “The View” was not afraid of controversy, as the co-hosts started to wrestle on live TV over everything from working mothers to whether or not George W. Bush was a despot for invading Iraq.
That’s now the model for panel shows. And Barbara became the Martha Washington of our current cultural moment, where opinion matters more than news, and it’s not about what you know, but what you think — expressing your feelings as a genre of journalism.
Barbara used to love to say part of the secret to her success was that she never sweat or had to take bathroom breaks. But interviewing her was terrifying. Not because she wasn’t nice, but because you try to glean information from the very best interviewer on the planet. She wasn’t easily charmed and didn’t open up that quickly. It also didn’t help that she had a raging space heater in her office at ABC News. Yes, I can tell you with scientific certainty that Barbara didn’t sweat, which only made me start to perspire even more as we revisited the highs and lows of her career one afternoon surrounded by her shelves of Emmys and a hand-drawn portrait of her beloved Havanese dog, Cha Cha.
Like most legends, Barbara had her share of flaws. Because she felt like she had to fight for every opportunity, she wasn’t someone who understood or adhered to the notion of teamwork. She’d sabotage a colleague for a scoop because she had no real friends among the other anchors in the newsroom. She didn’t intervene when “The View” became a hot mess backstage — as long as the ratings were good, she was fine with co-hosts who acted like bullies.
She could be extremely insecure and never stopped second guessing herself. And not surprisingly, she saw the world as it revolved around Barbara Walters. She talked so incessantly about how she struggled to get closer to her grown daughter, Jackie, that Joy Behar once refused to sit next to her on an airplane for a work trip, because she couldn’t deal with these spinning monologues.
Barbara would have never retired from TV if she could have stayed on forever. But as she got into her late 80s, her health deteriorated. In the final years of her life, she suffered from memory loss, which is why we haven’t heard or seen from her in a few years. After all, nothing short of a cruel condition could have silenced Barbara Walters. She was always worried that once she left TV, she’d be forgotten. But that was never going to happen. Barbara earned her place in both the history books and the gossip pages, and that’s something no one could ever say about the male anchors she ran over to get her exclusives.
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