It’s not easy to ask famous people questions you know they don’t want to answer. It takes even more guts to pose personally intrusive queries in front of television cameras and a production crew. Many interviewers apologetically soften the approach, or frame questions carefully to absolve themselves, or approach sensitive issues from an oblique angle. But truly effective interrogation—the kind Barbara Walters did—will almost always be perceived as invasive, insensitive, and rude.
Walters, who died Friday at 93, was America’s Grand Inquisitor, a groundbreaking journalist who was unafraid to probe the unapproachable with people unaccustomed to such effrontery.
Barbara Walters understood that tough questions create electric moments. They spark emotional reactions within the distant television viewer, igniting feelings of sympathy, embarrassment, understanding, or anger. Answers remain secondary; it’s the question, and the cringe-inducing moment it can elicit, that best stimulates a visceral response. That grasp of the medium’s interpersonal dynamic is what all the great American TV interviewers, including Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and Mike Wallace, have shared.
Even among the best, Barbara Walters was in a class by herself. Her career proved remarkably diverse, ranging from time spent as a morning TV news-entertainment host, to anchoring a daily evening network newscast and weekly news magazine programs, to her final triumph as a daytime talk-show co-host. But Walters’ most valuable and singular skill was her ability to ask the questions that made us cringe, whether she lobbed them at a Hollywood celebrity, a ruling monarch, an authoritarian dictator, or the president of the United States. What audiences savored was Walters’s advocacy on our behalf, even when it was prying and uncomfortable. She knew exactly what she was doing, which is why she so often crafted excellent television.
It takes strength, and a thick skin, to become famous for being abrasive. Walters, who was born in Boston in 1929, was the daughter of Dena and Lou Walters. The family moved to New York City in the early 1940s so that her father could transplant his famous Boston nightclub, the Latin Quarter, to Gotham. Lou Walters soon became an important entertainment business impresario, producing a Broadway run of the famous Ziegfeld Follies revue and booking and producing famous celebrities for residences in Miami Beach and Las Vegas. Barbara graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1951 and soon returned to New York City, where she began her career doing publicity and press releases for NBC’s local station, WNBT. It was while working at WNBT that Walters was first noticed by Roone Arledge, who asked her to produce a 15-minute children’s program titled Ask the Camera. She moved through a succession of jobs in the new medium, finally landing at the CBS morning program in 1955 and eventually winding up at NBC’s Today show, the nation’s dominant morning TV program, in 1961.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Walters became a daily TV presence in American households. She began as a “Today Girl” and eventually worked her way into a reporter’s job before the feminist movement eased the obstacles that had stymied so many women’s careers before the early 1960s. By the early 1970s, Walters had become a de facto co-host of Today, but she would not be given the actual title until 1974. Much of the credit for her popularity stemmed from her prowess at interviewing. By the mid-1970s, Walters had become a famous television news celebrity worthy of parody on Saturday Night Live.
Walters’s reputation for asking taboo questions could also be exploited by celebrities and politicians seeking to clean up rumors. “I am not a lesbian,” Oprah Winfrey stated flatly to Walters in 2010, clarifying rumors about her relationship with Gayle King. Walters proved willing—even eager—to press celebrities on rumors no matter how salacious or defamatory. Perhaps the apex (or nadir) of Walters’ enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of television discourse occurred in 1991, when she asked actor Richard Gere about certain “salacious rumors.” The question could be read in multiple ways; murmurs that Gere was gay abounded in Hollywood at the time, but there was also a second, much more scandalous rumor involving an activity that would later be known as “gerbiling,” and there’s no doubt Walters (and Gere) had been informed of it, even if many in the audience had no idea what Walters was referencing.
But to only consider Walters in the role of celebrity interrogator obscures the singular position in American politics she occupied in the 1970s and 1980s. Moving from Today to the anchor desk at ABC News made her a dynamic player in national and global politics. She became widely recognized as the most important female journalist U.S. broadcasting had produced up to that time. She interviewed everyone who mattered during those Cold War years, pushing Fidel Castro to admit ways his regime repressed human rights in 1977, and inciting the empress of Iran to cry on camera when her husband, the Shah, refused to allow the possibility that equality might exist between women and men.
There exist too many of these moments to catalog, but perhaps one example suffices to illustrate the enormous power Walters wielded. In 1980, the White House needed to readjust the popular image of President Jimmy Carter. Besieged on all sides, with Republican challenger Ronald Reagan rising in the polls, Carter needed to reintroduce a softer and more empathetic persona to divert focus from the tired, frustrated, and prickly person he had become. For the key interview, Carter could have selected anybody—Walter Cronkite’s nightly audience was close to 20 million Americans, and 60 Minutes was the most-watched show of any kind on U.S. television. Yet it was Walters the White House called. Her ability to humanize her subjects, while still asking probing and revealing questions, was unmatched. Carter’s White House underestimated her independence and commitment to critical reporting, and the interview failed. Like so many others, Carter’s advisors misjudged Walters.
By the time Walters became the broadcast legend who signed the lucrative ABC News anchor contract in 1976, she had survived a million indignities and insults, and been treated as a lesser journalist with fewer talents than her male colleagues. Clearly, her career success came at a cost; first, it had been difficult to fight for fairness and equality every day. Then she was forced to suffer the indignity of working with Harry Reasoner, the CBS News transplant who resented her presence on the newscast he considered his own.
That’s why the final endeavor of her media career ultimately proved most successful. Away from the evening news desk and the primetime news magazine, she was able to reconnect with audiences that knew her best—and respected and loved her. When she launched The View in 1997, she knew her demographic intimately. Her target viewers were those mature women who, like her, had suffered lifetimes filled with what today we call “microaggressions,” but in an earlier era comprised the harassment and hassles inextricably linked to being an intelligent woman with ambition. The insults and disrespect she continually suffered, and surmounted, ultimately provided the fuel propelling her remarkably important journalistic career. And her co-workers and fans never forgot that.
That’s the reason that on Joy Behar’s last day on The View, in 2013, she graciously thanked her colleague and friend Walters for her path-breaking career, and then concluded with “fuck Harry Reasoner.” “Nobody understands that,” a shocked Walters replied. “We get it,” said Behar. “We get it.”
That “fuck you, Harry Reasoner” was a victory lap of sorts. It remains the perfect send-off for the broadcaster who fought so diligently to modernize broadcast journalism and make it a more equitable and fair profession for women. For all her intrusive questions, her skillful interrogating, her sharp and incisive commentary, Walters’ legacy extends far beyond those famous interviews. She provided a model for women to unapologetically pursue their ambition, no matter how often it got them called “rude.”
Ultimately, that’s what Barbara Walters will be remembered for. And that’s a social contribution that extends far beyond the history of TV news.