Let’s Talk Barbara Walters

Seventeen leading broadcasters on her legacy and making their way in the world she made.

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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Barbara Walters died on December 30 at the age of 93 during a low ebb in the news cycle. Her home of 50 years, ABC News, pressed PLAY on a two-hour prime-time special, Our Barbara, but it aired during the attentional wasteland of New Year’s Day. Walters, whose ambition had no off switch, would have been irritated about the timing.

In Audition, her memoir, Walters lists every important person who came to her retirement party, then self-consciously wonders, “Do I sound like an awful jerk? Should this have meant so much? I’m not sure, but it did.” When ABC News renamed its building for Walters two years later, she fretted that the plaque was too small. “Tell me where it is,” she demanded of Ramin Setoodeh in his book about The View. “You don’t even know.”

But if tweets and Instagram posts and statements crafted by the publicists of famous newswomen had meant anything to her, Walters would have been cheered. They used words like trailblazer and legend; they thanked her for inspiring and for mentoring. The undisguised sexism she experienced in her half-century on-air career was discussed vaguely at a safe historical remove. And yet, zombielike, it intruded. Weeks after Walters died, Don Lemon, 57 and appointed to save CNN’s morning show, apologized for telling America, and his female co-hosts (ages 30 and 40), that “a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s, 30s, and maybe her 40s.” By then, what had been a gleefully viral story of Good Morning America’s office romance among equals had curdled into a more familiar, and depressing, tale of junior female employees navigating a culture of sleeping with men a few rungs up the ladder — at Barbara’s own network, no less. Even in Canada (Canada!), a 58-year-old anchor was reported to have been let go in part for allowing her hair to go gray. And so the editors of this magazine decided to gather a number of women in television news for a more candid conversation.

Cynthia McFadden, senior investigative correspondent at NBC News, was a longtime friend of Walters’s — and, she noted to me, is still the only woman she knows of on America’s news networks to have stayed gray long after salons reopened. When we spoke, it had been six weeks since Walters died, and enough time had passed to eulogize her friend with a little more “sandpaper.” McFadden used the word to characterize moments like Walters asking a 15-year-old Brooke Shields her measurements and demanding she stand next to her to compare their bodies or the viral clip of Dolly Parton gracefully parrying Walters’s oozy condescension (“You don’t have to look like this … Do you ever feel that you’re a joke?”) in 1977. It was surely also time to introduce some friction to the high-gloss, you-go-girl version of Barbara Walters, who had more recently asked Chris Christie not only if he was too fat to be president but why he was so fat.

“For her moment in history, I think she did a pretty good job for herself and for the rest of us,” McFadden said. “Some of the stuff you now look back on and you can cringe and say, ‘Eh, maybe not that.’”

Among the 17 women across generations who came to remember Walters — and, while they were at it, reflect on their own lives in the world she helped make — were dear friends and rivals and admirers from afar. “From the beginning, and every decade thereafter, we were following her,” said Jane Pauley, the 72-year-old host of CBS Sunday Morning, who succeeded Walters on the Today show. “No one ever caught up. She had contenders, but she never really surrendered the title of the No. 1 among us.”

Walters officially retired in 2014. Although she sneaked back to work a few more times, she was no longer in public life when Me Too convulsed the television-news business and reporting discredited the amiable images of two out of three network morning-show hosts (Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose) and even swept the executive suites (Les Moonves, Jeff Fager — the list is much longer). All this had the secondary effect of elevating the stature of women, including NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb and CBS’s Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell — who stepped in not only to clean up but to demonstrate the fundamental, expensive superfluity of those men. And there are now enough women running the show to ask some follow-up questions about which women are there and what they have to say. Amna Nawaz, 43, was recently named co-anchor of PBS NewsHour, and she is the first Muslim, first Pakistani American, and first first-generation American to sit in that seat; Joy Reid, 54, at MSNBC, became the first Black woman to host a prime-time cable show, ever, on any network; Clarissa Ward, 43, has been war-zone hopping for CNN while six months pregnant with her third child; Tamron Hall, 52, the first Black woman to co-anchor Today, who was pushed aside after NBC executives threw an obscene amount of money at Megyn Kelly — money they might better have tossed into the East River — has now scored five seasons of what few journalists besides Walters ever managed: a successful daytime show; Soledad O’Brien, 56, went into business for herself. Women have been occupying traditionally male quarters for long enough now that it’s barely remarked upon — O’Donnell, 49, at CBS Evening News; Margaret Brennan, 43, at Face the Nation; and Erin Burnett, 46, at the helm of a prime-time show on CNN.

Amna Nawaz (PBS NewsHour), Connie Chung (television journalist), and Clarissa Ward (chief international correspondent, CNN). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

It’s no knock on their achievements to observe that they have been given a chance just as the television-news monopoly on attention and access has waned. Or to point out that plenty else in the business has scarcely budged or is only creakily shifting now, such as the overwhelming maleness of the executive suite. Or the escalating standards of whittled waists and pendulum-swinging filler trends. And still the ageism.

“I don’t know about your parents,” said McFadden, “but my parents said, ‘You’re always going to find someone who’s smarter, who’s prettier, who’s more talented than you are. And so you have to make your peace with that.’ And I’m not sure Barbara ever made her peace with that. And listen, this is part of the reason that she was able to climb that very tall, very craggy mountain, right? With her bare hands.” Walters didn’t keep any of this a secret. She called her memoir Audition because she felt that her life was one competition after another, that “no matter how high my profile became, how many awards I received, or how much money I made, my fear was that it all could be taken away from me.” To Walters, that wasn’t fodder for therapy so much as it was fuel, a professional credo that drove her to say “yes” to every assignment and work harder than anyone else: “That is not a bad formula for success.” So what if it also made her miserable?

Walters used to ask her interview subjects if they had a “philosophy,” and one of hers was that “you can’t have it all — a great marriage, successful career, and well-adjusted children — at least not at the same time.” (The implied you, of course, was women and only women; no one assumes heterosexual men are intrinsically psychically tortured by the pull of workplace and family, though maybe we should.) And yet she told any young woman who would listen not to forget to have a life, by which she meant a husband and children, and she wasn’t nearly so accepting of the compromises of her own life as that “philosophy” suggests. She kept careful track of who she thought had it all, which in practice was less a measure of gender equality and more a way of registering who had won every game. Give Walters credit for never pretending it was easy. The women who came after her have gotten the message.

Christiane Amanpour (chief international anchor, CNN). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Connie Chung, 76, was visibly happy to see Pauley. “You were with those pigs at the Today show,” Chung said by way of greeting, loud enough for several onlookers to hear. Eleven of the 17 women I spoke with came by that day, and more than one person remarked to me how amazing it was that Pauley had landed a prestigious anchor gig at CBS Sunday Morning at the age of 65 after semi-retirement. Pauley redirected, murmured something polite about the privileges she had enjoyed as “Lady Jane” when she succeeded Walters at Today.

“They were dicks!” Chung insisted, her volume rising. “Gigantic dicks, every single one of them.” (Maybe her candor came with the freedom of no longer hosting her own show; maybe that’s just Connie.)

It’s hard to remember now, in this age of firmly feminized morning television, but Walters became the first woman to co-host Today in 1974, outlasting a man whose name no one remembers who had tried to demote her back to the “girlie” interviews, insisting that he get to ask the first three questions of any important subject. Walters’s next gig, as the first woman to co-anchor the evening news, left the sainted Walter Cronkite with what he called the “sickening sensation that we were all going under, that all of our efforts to hold network television news aloof from show business had failed.” Her sour-faced ABC Evening News co-host, Harry Reasoner, openly counted the minutes she supposedly owed him from talking too much. She was humiliated but motivated. Walters couldn’t beat the newsmen at their own game, so she invented her own, the big-ticket interview specials she booked herself.

The format earned her millions of viewers and dollars and a recurring SNL alter ego, played first by Gilda Radner and then by Cheri Oteri, blithely mangling their r’s. Her interview with Monica Lewinsky, which drew 74 million viewers, remains one of the most watched of all time. Despite the agita her arrival gave the serious men, she could nail a head of state. In the interview chair, said Christiane Amanpour admiringly, Walters turned what had been dubbed a liability into an asset: “She could be tough, but with a silk glove. She didn’t come with a boxer’s glove and punch you out. She kind of made them feel that it was safe to open up to her. Now, whether it ended up being safe, probably they would say ‘no.’”

As someone who had also financially supported her parents, Chung had long felt a kinship with Walters. It took a lot longer for them to be friends. “Neither of us really had time for each other until later years,” Chung told me. She herself had survived by acting like one of the guys. “I decided, because they were all white males, that I, too, would be a white male,” she said. “I had false bravado. I had big-shot-itis.” Did it work? “They were flummoxed because here I was, a little lotus blossom that was a little too blunt, a little too bawdy. I would do sexual innuendos and racial references before they did.” When Walters died, Chung told Good Morning America that what they had in common was that “we both forgot to get pregnant. And we both worked with men who despised us.” (Walters suffered repeated miscarriages, which she kept secret at the time; she and Chung each adopted a child.)

Chung managed to become the second woman to co-anchor a nightly news broadcast, with Dan Rather at CBS, until the fact that he despised her caught up to her. She jumped to ABC, where she claims she expected she, Walters, and Diane Sawyer would, together, “buck the boys,” the Peter Jenningses and the Ted Koppels. Once she arrived, there was to be no feminist utopia, only a competition in which Chung says she was told to defer to Walters and Sawyer on the big stuff.

Deborah Roberts (senior national affairs correspondent, ABC News) and Soledad O’Brien (Matter of Fact With Soledad O’Brien). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Deborah Norville (Inside Edition) and Gayle King (CBS Mornings). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Walters could be cutthroat. “She earned the right to be a diva,” said Chung. Pauley once thought she had an exclusive with Martina Navratilova. “I did not anticipate that, over the weekend, Barbara would call Martina,” Pauley told me, and arrange her own interview with the tennis star. Bye-bye, exclusive. Andrea Mitchell wrote in her memoir that she made the mistake of mentioning at a Walters dinner party that Fidel Castro had promised to sit down with her; instead, it became one of Walters’s most famous interviews. When Gayle King was up to co-host The View, she found out she’d lost the job from reading Walters’s confidante and close friend Cindy Adams — who wrote in her gossip column it was never gonna happen — before she got the call from Walters herself. At The View, former co-host Lisa Ling told me, Walters used to kick a panelist under the table if she said something that could jeopardize an interview she wanted. Ling found a perverse pleasure in being kicked by her boss. “I really wore it as a badge of pride,” Ling said.

She could also be generous to younger women, talking ABC News’ president into giving McFadden a job early in her career. She sent boosterish personal letters in times both high and low — to Katie Couric when she aced a surprise interview with George H.W. Bush, to O’Donnell when she got the solo anchor seat at CBS, and to Deborah Norville when she took the heat for Pauley’s exit at Today. “I was younger and blonder; that was their rap on me,” Norville told me. “Well, I said, anybody can be this color blonde. I’ll give you the name of the guy who does it for me every six weeks.” In her letter, Walters quoted what John Wayne had written to her when she was dinged for her million-dollar salary and slack ratings: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

If some of Walters’s mentorship was laced with a sense of her own martyrdom, well, that was her way. In Audition, Walters compares the negative attention her million-dollar salary got at ABC News to the purportedly easy treatment of Couric for her double-digit-million move from Today to anchoring the CBS Evening News decades later, about whom supposedly “nothing scathing or mean” emerged. (The record shows otherwise, including Couric’s ousted Evening News predecessor Rather publicly lamenting the choice to “dumb it down, tart it up.”) Walters did feel a special commonality with Couric, telling her more than once that neither of them was particularly glamorous. Couric wrote in her obituary of Walters that she didn’t quite know what to make of that, but as we chatted, she ventured a guess. “I don’t think she meant we were not attractive, but we weren’t the sort of beauty queen that some television broadcast journalists had been in their past.”

Norah O’Donnell (CBS Evening News), Erin Burnett (Erin Burnett OutFront), and Margaret Brennan (Face the Nation With Margaret Brennan). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Katie Couric (Katie Couric Media), Cynthia McFadden (NBC News), and Lisa Ling (This Is Life With Lisa Ling). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The women Walters took under her wing understood that it was a crime to bore Barbara. At lunch, “she tried to mentor a little bit,” recalls Deborah Roberts, a contributing anchor at Walters’s old stomping ground 20/20. “And then, invariably, after you dispensed with a little bit of that, she wanted to know something.” This was the transaction: a little nugget, some intel. “And then one time I remember going out with her and I didn’t have anything to say, didn’t have anything gossipy,” said Roberts. “She was like, ‘Check.’”

McFadden remembers getting straight off the plane from a reporting trip and heading to Walters’s apartment for a dinner party. “I was the first there. And she said, ‘Well, how are you?’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m so overwhelmed, I’m so tired.’ And she goes, ‘Stop it. Nobody wants to hear that.’ And you know something? She was quite right.”

Roberts, who is married to Today’s Al Roker, was nervous about telling Walters, the consummate careerist, that she was pregnant. But Barbara congratulated her and told her to enjoy her maternity leave: “She said, ‘I’ve had miscarriages, and I probably should have paid a little more attention to my personal life.’” Ling remembers trying to interrogate Walters about her interviews with Castro and Menachem Begin. “And she would just look me directly in the eye and say, ‘Darling, just don’t neglect your personal life.’” The unsolicited advice arose from her own regrets. Walters’s daughter, Jackie, generally eschewed public life but twice sat for interviews, with McFadden and Pauley respectively, in which she frankly discussed her often pained relationship with her mother.

“After it was over and we’re just chatting, Barbara made a remark that, ‘you know, you’re the only one that really had it all,’” said Pauley, who had three children with her husband, Garry Trudeau. Pauley insists that isn’t true. “Nobody really had it all.”

“Well, she said virtually the same thing to me,” said McFadden. “‘You have it all.’ I mean, I have a son. I was divorced at that point. I think her self-worth was often measured in reaction to what she saw as other people’s ‘perfect’ — I’m using quotation marks here — but other people’s ‘perfect lives.’” She paused. “I’m very interested she said that to Jane.”

One night at a dinner party at Walters’s home, Chung found herself seated next to Merv Adelson, Walters’s third husband, whom she married twice. “And Merv said to me, ‘Do you have an identity outside your job?’ And I thought, I’m not answering that. So I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ And he said, ‘Because Barbara doesn’t.’”

Chung continued, “I kept thinking about that. I think that there’s nothing wrong with identifying with your profession, with what you do. Because I believe that coal miners, if they close the coal mine down, are a bit lost because that was their life. If an assembly worker loses his or her job, that’s what she did, that’s what she’d identified with. And I think there’s nothing wrong with Barbara identifying with her job. And I’d like to say I did, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Fair enough, though no coal miners or assembly-line workers also considered being nicknamed “million-dollar baby” their personal cross to bear.

Jane Pauley (CBS Sunday Morning). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Joy Reid (The ReidOut With Joy Reid) and Tamron Hall (Tamron Hall Show). Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

In 1991, NBC executives were forced to admit, in the face of tanking ratings, that their bumbling move to nix Pauley for the younger Norville was a failure. Norville got pregnant (which the press accused her of doing to save her career), and during her maternity leave, Bryant Gumbel brusquely announced Couric as a replacement: “In case you haven’t gotten the message, Katie is now a permanent fixture up here, a member of our family, an especially welcome one. Deborah Norville is not.” For a while after that, Norville hosted a radio show from her apartment so she could be near her baby. Walters agreed to be one of the first guests. Norville remembers her getting “all gushy” when they popped into the nursery. During the interview, Norville asked Walters about sacrifices made for work. By then, Walters’s marriage with Adelson was definitively over. “She gave a perfectly Barbara Walters, buttoned-up answer,” Norville said. “Her voice was clear, but as she was talking — this is radio — her eyes filled with tears and her lip quivered, and I was like, Whoa, this one hurts.

The generations after hers were paying attention. “When I think of the amount of shit that some of these women have had to put up with …,” said Ward. (That’s not to say women her age haven’t put up with their own shit, although she stressed it’s improved even since she started out. “I remember someone at 60 Minutes who shall remain nameless telling me that I should be more coy and flirtatious in my interview style. I was literally, ‘When I’m in Aleppo getting shot at, it’s sort of hard to be coy.’”) “As a young journalist, I definitely looked at women of an older generation and thought, They’ve sacrificed so much, and they’ve given so much, and they’ve opened this door for us. But now it’s our job, and it’s our duty, to be honest about (a) the cost that came with that and (b) the reality of this new fantasy that we’ve created, which is having it all.”

As Amna Nawaz’s career took off, her husband offered to (and ultimately did) step away from his job as a manager at the New York Times to be the primary caregiver of their children. “And I think a lot about what I miss,” she told me. “I love this job so much, and I love my family. I can’t believe I’m getting upset about this.” Earlier, Nawaz had teared up getting to meet Chung, a hero of hers, and now she was wiping away the tears running down her face as she spoke. “I’ve missed first days of school. I’ve missed most first days of school. I’ve missed my kids walking. I had to run out on my little one’s birthday because that was the day they called the election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.” As hard as it was, it still felt worth it: “I could never have imagined someone like me being in this role when I began.”

Unlike Walters, this generation didn’t have to keep personal struggles secret, but the line of what to keep private and what to disclose is still fraught. “I think for someone who’s a first, there’s this pressure of not just How much do I share? What do I tell?” says O’Brien, a mother of four. “You literally are either carving out the way for women or fucking them over. If you are a person who has a miscarriage and that’s taken as something terrible, that absolutely will impact every other woman behind you who’s like, ‘Well, I’m thinking about having a kid.’ It just does.”

There’s still plenty of competition, but a critical mass of women, among them more women of color, opens up new possibilities. “One of the things that really helps make this industry better are people who actually understand solidarity and sisterhood and bringing other people along,” said Reid. “And for me, Tamron is one of those people.” Hall helped out with more than just advice. “When she got her elevation to the Today show, she said, ‘I think Joy will be great in my spot on MSNBC.’ She truly is a mentor-sister-friend.”

Connie Chung. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

On the day they returned from Nora Ephron’s memorial service in July 2012, Walters asked McFadden to come to her office at ABC News and shut the door. McFadden was part of the self-anointed “Harpies,” a rotating lunch circle that included Walters, Ephron, Liz Smith, marketing executive Lisa Caputo, and an occasional celebrity cameo from the likes of George Clooney or Bette Midler, usually at old-media hot spot Michael’s. Inside her office, McFadden told me, Walters despaired, “I’m never going to measure up. I mean, I’m not that good. Nora made such a difference. She was so incredible.” McFadden says, “I only wish she could have enjoyed her success as much as the rest of us have benefited from it.”

Two years later, Walters did get to attend her own funeral, in a way, with her multi-episode retirement tour. Oprah Winfrey showing up for Walters’s last episode hosting The View in 2014: Now this was something to kvell about. Winfrey even retold the story of Walters inspiring her to be a broadcast journalist, though she mentioned it was the last time she would agree to tell it. “Anybody that works in this business knows: What do we got that they ain’t got?” Winfrey said to Walters. “We got stamina.” Then she summoned a procession of famous broadcasters, many in red shift dresses and feathered blowouts, to pay tribute to the ultimate survivor. Walters, who didn’t know they were coming, gasped and repeated, “This is my legacy.”

“That was the Mount Rushmore moment,” Hall told me. When it was Hall’s turn for Oprah to bellow her name so she could (metaphorically) kiss Walters’s ring, she remembered being the kid from Texas, daughter of a single mom and granddaughter of a sharecropper, looking up to Barbara: “It was like I was levitating.” Chung, whose red dress was off the shoulder, said, “There were zillions of us. And I have to tell you, there had to have been $5 million worth of plastic surgery in that room.” (Not her, she claimed.) When they went to pose for a group photo, Pauley remembered being in the back row, behind taller women. “I don’t have the instinct to, say, elbow my way into the front row,” she said. This proclamation of midwestern humility didn’t prevent Pauley from adding, “Somehow I think Barbara called me up. And so I ended up in a better spot in that picture.”

Even the parade of grateful women on The View could go only so far to push aside Walters’s dissatisfaction. “I’ve never shared this with anyone,” said Ling, but that day on set, when they were no longer live, Ling lightly said, “‘Barbara, in a couple of months, are you going to be lounging in a hammock in Tahiti?’ And she just leaned over and whispered, ‘They’re making me quit.’” It had been 50 years that she was on television, and Walters liked to say only Mickey Mouse had been on the air longer. “Barbara’s life was her career,” said Norville. “And if her career was coming to a close, what did that say about her life?”

Something else already felt like it was slipping away, something bigger than one woman’s career. Walters caught a glimpse of it in 2008, when Audition was published and she lamented that “since the Britney Spearses of the world and sensational crime stories became the big network draws, international political leaders, with few exceptions, have come to be considered dull fare.” For all that was bad about the old days, there was a sense that what happened in television news really mattered. This seemed most keenly felt by the women who bridged Walters’s generation and the Wards and Nawazes of now — boomers old enough to remember how things used to be. “There are so many times I get upset with this profession, and I feel like it’s kind of not quite what it used to be years ago when we began with Barbara,” said Roberts, 62. “I think a lot of the lighter stories that we do sometimes we wouldn’t have done back then.” Walters had done celebrity fluff, of course, but it always felt like an event: “There were stories that were special. There were stories that we did that you just had not heard of. Now you’ve heard of everything.”

These broadcasts still command an audience, but it’s a fraction of what it was, and the contents can feel like wan summaries of topics that already blew up on the internet. Roberts has considered walking away, she confided, but she keeps getting drawn back in by stories.

Couric, who at 66 has gamely tried to follow where media goes (she had just posted some Instagram Stories from Aspen), and who entertainingly burned broadcast bridges with her recent memoir, missed some things about the old days, too. “I think I miss the old-fashioned newsroom that I’m not quite sure even exists as it did back in the day with the police scanners and people running around and getting things right before it went on air, being under deadline, working feverishly to put together a show and then have it done and leave, and not worrying about it. I mean, that just doesn’t happen anymore because with this thing we’re recording on” — she pointed to my iPhone — “you have information 24/7.”

“The business is much quieter now,” she said. “I miss that noise.” And there was something else she missed too, Couric admitted. “I miss having my hair blown out every day.”

Broadcasting is bizarre: Extremely well-paid, cutthroat, telegenic people are expected to present as relatable and to hustle around the clock while not making their lives look too depressing from the outside. Walters referred to the women broadcasters who came after her as her legacy, and partly what she meant, perhaps, is that they are the only people in the world who were familiar with what it costs to win.

Let’s Have a Real Conversation About Barbara Walters