Of the many milestones in Barbara Walters’s career — her ascendance from NBC booker to on-camera powerhouse at the Today show, her soft-focus but hard-hitting 20/20 interviews on ABC, her creation of The View — perhaps the most notable is that she’s retiring of her own volition next year. But the funny thing is that, if she were interested in extending her career by a few years or decades, her sensibility would translate perfectly online.
Only Diane Sawyer, sixteen years her junior, has had comparable staying power. Most of the prominent broadcast-news women of recent decades — Katie Couric, Elizabeth Vargas, Meredith Vieira, and most recently Ann Curry — end up shunted to correspondent roles after halfhearted announcements about their desire to spend more time with family. It’s been inspiring to watch Walters age on-camera, not only because we’re not used to seeing old women on television, but also because she’s served as a bridge between an era when news was defined by a small, homogenous group of experts to a time when discussion and conversation reign. This shift, derided by “serious” journalists as a watering-down of the news, is the real difference between the pre-digital and digital eras. Overall, it’s coincided with an expansion of the definition of news — and the sort of person who is qualified to report and comment on it.
It hasn’t been the smoothest transition. Women, despite occupying the anchor’s chair in decently representative numbers, are forced, before our very eyes, to reconcile the binding double standard that women face in almost every professional area. They must be soft but not too soft, confident but not conceited, bold but not threatening. They are literally performing femininity. And the consequences for a misstep are great. See, most recently, the Today show’s expulsion of Ann Curry.
Walters, however, has successfully walked this tightrope for decades. In the earliest days of her career, she both suffered and benefited from being one of the only women in serious TV news. In interviews, she could be a journalistic wolf in sheep’s clothing, easing into difficult questions. (In 2008, she greeted Obama on The View by talking about how sexy he was, then immediately asked him about Jeremiah Wright.) As women have become more normalized as news authorities, their ability to use gender stereotypes to their advantage has faded somewhat. It’s what makes Walters both a great example — but also one that’s tough to follow.
When she announced her retirement this week, the press was positive, lauding her ability to bridge the gap between news and entertainment — the ultimate media switch-hitter. It used to be that sliding subtly from celebrity gossip to a White House press conference was “infotainment,” fodder for mockery, a way of discrediting women journalists, who, especially in the early decades of Walters’s career, had no point of entry on the hard-news side of the business. Their path to the top was to accept the fluff assignments, the dog shows and beauty interviews, and then transition to interviewing prime ministers and covering tragedies. Walters pioneered this strategy.
“Walters’s method can create jarring transitions,” wrote Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker in 2008, the year Walters’s memoir was published. “In 1977, she rushed from Dolly Parton to Anwar Sadat, and in 2006 had to skip an interview with Hugo Chávez because she was with the widow of a man eaten by a crocodile — and it consistently generates tut-tutting from colleagues, especially male ones. ‘Is Barbara a journalist, or is she Cher?’ Richard Salant, the president of CBS News, asked when she was made an anchor. (Answer: she’s a journalist who finds Cher a ‘delight to talk to.’)” That’s evident in Walters’s 1985 interview with the pop icon.
Her approach opened the door for other women to move into the anchor’s seat. In 2006, when Katie Couric became the first woman to anchor CBS News without a male co-host, the Washington Post warned that “men are disappearing from TV newsrooms” and the gender shift had led to a shift in the subject matter deemed worthy of national news broadcasts.“By the late 1990s,” the Post reported, “subjects that had all but been ignored years earlier — abortion, child care, sexual discrimination in the workplace — were part of the serious news agenda.” These days, Diane Sawyer is the only woman hosting a nightly news broadcast, but network news has also faded in prominence as more viewers get their news from the morning news shows and online — venues where the topics formerly derided as “women’s issues” get far more airtime and discussion.
Nowhere is this sensibility more evident than on Walters’s brainchild, The View, a panel-style show in which women of different political backgrounds discuss everything from war to plastic surgery. Sure, it may produce some stupid clips of the women fawning over attractive male actors, but they also ask serious questions of legit politicians. And the conversational format feels more at home in the digital age — a time when everything is up for debate online — than two anchors staring straight ahead and delivering scripted news and commentary.
It is no surprise that these advances came from Walters, who has admirably never shied away from her interest in even the most lowbrow public figures. “Women are the internet, and the internet is women,” declared n+1 last year. Digital media prioritize the conversation around a piece of journalism as much as the journalism itself. They give us health tips next to dispatches from Syria next to celebrity news next to investigative reporting. The “most read” list and Twitter feed erase distinctions between sections of the newspaper and segments of the broadcast news show. Everything is media. And the ability to fluidly move from highbrow to low, and from serious to snarky, is a skill the Internet rewards.
“I happen to move in the same circles in which the powerful people move,” Walters said in 1974, when she was the highest-paid woman in TV news. Her strength was in having a broad definition of power, and that point of view will also be her legacy. Even decades ago, when her career was ascendant, she was prepared to make way for a new generation. “We all know that everything — e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g — comes to an end,” she added.
Bonus: Click through below to see the Barbara Walters Hair Retrospective.