On Friday, Barbara Walters is retiring. After a career smashing through glass ceilings, including her stints in 1974 on “Today” as the first female news host, and in 1976 as the first woman to coanchor an evening newscast, Walters is unplugging her microphone. Now 84, the interviewer whose brand is to make guests sniffle and blubber is ready to pack up her box of condolence tissues and go home.
In her wake, she’ll leave a mixed legacy, from the highs of her groundbreaking network career in the 1960s and ’70s as a tenacious woman in a male-dominated profession, to the lows of her rampant blurring of the lines between journalism and entertainment.
Since the Boston-born Walters announced her plan to leave “The View” and end her regular on-air work last May, giving the world a year to begin grieving and applauding, there has been much homage, and there will be more to come; we love to celebrate our retiring TV royalty, even when we suspect they’ll be making one or two comebacks before all is said and done.
Last week, amid a flurry of reverent articles filled with words such as “fearless,” Walters paid a celebratory visit to “Saturday Night Live,” home of the late Gilda Radner’s ruthless impression of her, the one that launched “Baba Wawa” into our collective snark-speak. On Monday, ABC named its news building on West 66th Street in New York “The Barbara Walters Building.” And Friday night, after a week of teary exaltation on “The View,” ABC will run a two-hour love-fest called “Barbara Walters: Her Story.”
Walters has been greeting her lionization with typically cool grace, seeming to both command it and reject it at the same time. That’s one of the peculiarities of her style; she is able to project both mensch and diva at the same time.
“Don’t cry for me, Argentina,” she said to Variety last month about ending her career, a modest, grateful crack that also has contradictory resonance, as she invites a comparison with the shrewd, glamor-craving Eva Peron.
Walters’s role in TV history is remarkably bound up with the ways that American culture has evolved across the past five decades, for women, for celebrities, and for audiences. As we have grown more comfortable with women in power, Walters has risen to the top of her field. As we’ve become evermore fixed on the personal lives of politicians, she has been eager to be their confessor. As we have turned fame into the ne plus ultra, the thing that trumps personal dignity, Walters has been willing to turn her camera and questions on tawdry figures such as accused murderer and actor Robert Blake or pop flashes such as Miley Cyrus.
No matter what you think of her — and opinions seem to run only hot or cold — you can’t deny her relevance. There’s no talking about the transformation of premillennial TV, from the stiff, objective styles of the old newsies to the more conversational and self-referential tone of today’s hosts, without including a chapter about her and the link she provided between them.
On the one hand, she has been a powerful role model for women in unscripted TV, including the likes of Katie Couric, Mary Hart, and Diane Sawyer, whose efforts to appear empathetic have been far less subtle and more saccharine.
Walters has survived bumps in the road that might have brought down less formidable women, not least of all her disastrous, tension-filled pairing with Harry Reasoner on ABC in 1976. Reasoner hated having to share his anchor responsibilities with her, and the ratings followed his lead. As Walters put it in a 2000 interview, “He would go every night across the street before the show and have a couple of beers with the guys — it’s an all-male club — and they would all sit and talk about how terrible I was.”
It was around that time that Walters, who came to ABC with a whopping $1 million dollar deal, was offered another $1 million by Larry Flynt to pose naked for Hustler magazine — the kind of unwelcome invitation that Reasoner, of course, did not have to deal with.
She refused to be sidelined by gender politics — she was once referred to by “Today” host Hugh Downs as “the new ‘Today’ girl” — and eventually she rose to the top. She has been a prime mover behind a number of important and lucrative TV franchises, including her pre-Oscars specials, her annual “10 Most Fascinating People” show, “20/20,” and “The View.”
A mesmerizing cauldron of hot topics, celebrity fawning, and panelist psychodrama, “The View” has also been a reminder to the networks that women, too, are interested in debating social and political issues. Walters’s successes, including record-breaking salaries at ABC, set precedents that would later benefit all women in the entertainment news business.
On the other hand, she has been a pioneer of the kinds of interviews that veer away from the issues in order to feed tabloid curiosity. What may have started as an effort to humanize major political figures such as Fidel Castro, Golda Meir, and Moshe Dayan, gave way to tear-baiting interviews with the likes of Courtney Love, the Menendez brothers, and the cast of “Jersey Shore.”
The promise of some of her early reporting, including a historic joint talk with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in 1977, developed into a concerted effort to get her subjects to share and make headlines, while she sat exuding compassion in order to prime the pump.
She now seems to live her life behind a soft-focus lens, with an affected sense of dignity, as she leads us on tours of celebrities’ well-appointed homes and rocky psyches. She’s the less sleazy part of the tabloid system, but she is a part of it; after TMZ has hidden in the bushes and espied some celebrity embarrassment, Walters swoops in for the cleanup operation, openly walking the lawns with that celebrity or criminal — asking Michael Jackson how he heard about the death of his friend Princess Diana, asking Kim Kardashian about her sex tape, asking O.J. Simpson intimate Robert Kardashian if he believes in Simpson’s innocence — and enabling their public spin.
She apologetically asks questions that less self-concerned reporters wouldn’t cloak in contrition, trying to hide her hunger for sensation with politesse. And she often drops her personal judgments into her chats, as she did during her famous 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky, for which a massive 74 million people tuned in.
Walters: “What will you tell your children, when you have them?”
Lewinsky: “Mommy made a big mistake.”
Walters: “You can say that again.”
The only reason for that last unnecessary comment is to affirm Walters as some sort of moral conscience of the nation, instead of a mere reporter. She is a terribly hard worker, and she is known for her scrappy persistence, having brought the art of the “get” to another level. But when the get is Donald Sterling companion V. Stiviano, or Oliver North’s secretary Fawn Hall, the effort hardly seems meaningful — more of a ratings stunt than a news story.
While she jovially sat at the “Saturday Night Live” news desk last weekend, Walters gave tips for a long career in journalism. “It is fine to make people smile,” she said with a smirk, “but the real money is in making them cry. Nothing brings in the viewers like seeing a celebrity reduced to tears. You may think, aw, I’m really feeling bad for them, but all I’m thinking is ‘ca-ching!’ ”
It was a joke, but it had an uncanny ring of truth to it. As she steps down, Barbara Walters has not made her fortune on confrontation and insight so much as a few soft cries and confidential whispers.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.