Barbara Walters was born to Dena (Selett) and Lou Walters on September 25, 1931, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Her only brother, Burton, had died of pneumonia before Barbara was born, and her sister, Jacqueline, was born mentally handicapped. Her father operated a number of nightclubs, resulting in Barbara attending schools in Boston, New York City, and Miami Beach, Florida. Because of this lifestyle, Walters grew up a lonely and shy child and was especially close to her only playmate and sister, Jacqueline.
Walters earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Sarah Lawrence College in 1954. After working briefly as a secretary she landed a job with the National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) New York affiliate WRCA-TV where she quickly rose to producer and writer. She also held various writing and public relations jobs, including a stint as a women’s program producer at WPIX-TV in New York City.
Walters’s abilities and experience in research, writing, filming, and editing earned her a job as news and public affairs producer for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television. There she wrote materials for noted personalities who appeared on the CBS morning show that competed with NBC’s Today program. She left CBS because she believed further advancement was unlikely.
MOVING IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA
In 1961, Walters was hired by NBC as a writer with an occasional on-the-air feature for the Today show. Within three years, Walters became an on-camera interviewer and persuaded such notables as Mamie Eisenhower, Anwar Sadat, and H. R. Haldeman to appear with her.
Meanwhile, a number of different “show business” women held the post as the ” Today girl,” but none had a journalism background. Mainly they engaged in small talk and read commercials. Some at NBC began to think a different kind of woman might help the show. When the spot was unexpectedly opened, Walters was given the ” Today girl” slot on a trial basis. The public readily accepted this bright, on-the-air newswoman, who also continued to write and produce much of her own material.
Today featured stories by Walters that included socially significant topics, and frequently she got on-the-spot experience which gave her reports even more credibility. In 1974, Walters was named cohost of the Today show. By then, her status as a broadcaster had risen to such heights that she had twice been named to Harper’s Bazaar ‘s list of “100 Women of Accomplishment” (1967 and 1971), Ladies Home Journal’s “75 Most Important Women” (1970), and Time ‘s “200 Leaders of the Future” (1974).
In 1976, Walters accepted a million-dollar-a-year contract for five years to move to ABC, where she became television’s first network anchorwoman, the most prestigious job in television journalism. She also anchored and produced four prime-time specials and sometimes hosted or appeared on the network’s other news and documentary programs. Her contract stirred professional criticism and jealousy. It not only doubled her income from NBC and her syndicated show, Not For Women Only, but it also made her the highest paid newscaster in history at that time.
Executives of other networks cried that their established anchors might demand salary increases, questioned what they perceived as a “show biz” tint to the dry task of news reporting, and questioned whether the public would accept a woman news anchor. Despite Walters’s sharp, probing interviewing techniques, she seldom seemed to alienate the person she was interviewing. She revealed some of the secrets of her success in her book How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything (1970).
STILL ON TOP
Walters has had a reputation for often being the first to interview world leaders. During the 1996 presidential campaign she interviewed the first African American Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, after his retirement from the military. She has also had exclusive interviews with both Christopher Darden and Robert Shapiro of the O. J. Simpson murder trial, noted by the media as one of the most controversial murder trials of the twentieth century. Walters also had exclusive interviews with billionaire David Geffen, then with Christopher Reeve following the horseback riding fall that left him paralyzed. In 1999, Walters was the first to be granted a public interview by Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose affair with President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment trial by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Walters’s elevation to top-paid broadcaster was credited with raising the status of other women journalists. Her own prowess as a broadcaster exploring socially important issues and as top-notch interviewer were undeniable. In addition, she excelled at bringing to the television public subjects that ranged from show business personalities to heads of state.