Barbara Walters -Television’s Trailblazing Treasure

Barbara Walters TV Guide

Almost 50 years to the day she died, Barbara Walters appeared on the cover of TV Guide from December 30, 1972

No one will ever be Barbara Walters again.

She was a trailblazer of television, a breaker of barriers, and a slayer of workplace stereotypes to which an entire generation owes their debt to. A pioneer for women broadcast journalists, despite the fact she herself was treated as a “girl” for way too long.

It’s hard to comprehend just how left out in the cold women were in the still-young days of TV journalism.

Television was a very black-and-white world not only on our TV screen but in the broadcasting newsroom where the hierarchy between men and women was strictly enforced. Americans liked their news delivered in a deep baritone voice accented by a chiseled chin. They could be bespectacled, they could be graying, but a newscaster not only had to be white it had to be a he.

A Career For VickyVintage Book

Published in 1964, “A Career for Vicky” mirrors the world of a young Barbara Walters -a behind the scenes cub writer specializing in women’s features, for a TV newsroom CBC News. “A noisy room with teletype machines that clattered and chattered,  never-ending ribbons of yellow paper spilled from the noisy machines bringing the news of the world into the room”

Women who worked in broadcasting were relegated to behind-the-scenes or cast as syrupy hostesses.

Hugh Downs host Today Show

In 1963 a 34-year-old Barbara Walters was a still a backroom girl buried in the ranks of The Invisibles- those hard-working and talented people who wrote the words that on-screen “stars” spoke.

She prepared “women’s interest” feature stories and interviews for the Today Show- hiding modestly behind the scene while female celebrities, each known as “The Today Girl” mouthed her lines and graciously cashed in on her work. “The Today Girl” kept changing over the years- Lee Meriwether, Helen O’Connell, Florence Henderson, Betsy Palmer, and Maureen O Sullivan held the job.

To various degrees, all these “girls” were chosen to satisfy the TV axiom: that too great a display of brains and competence in a woman would shrivel the mass audience.

The Girls kept getting reshuffled and during endless behind-the-scenes discussions about the hypothetical ideal “Today Girl” Barbara Walters sat quietly just listening.

Then one day in 1964  a light bulb went off in producer Al Morgan’s head. Personality and charm were wearing thin. They wanted a more intellectual approach to their Today Girl.

After another Today Girl failure with Maureen O Sullivan,  Hugh Downs the host of Today decided to give Barbara a chance and put her on the air a few times a week to present her own work.

It was a success.

The mass audience didn’t disappear.

Barbara Walters 1965

In fact, it actually liked the earnest, hardworking unpretentious girl, a little brusque,  a little shy who did her own homework and acted like a reporter and not a feather-headed hostess.

Suddenly Barbara became a “personality”  none of which had to do with her professional skills. Details of her wardrobe appeared in feature stories on women’s pages. Vogue asked her for 25 Beauty Secrets.  Cosmopolitan Magazine asked her to pose in Pucci towels. A Boston newspaper invited her to give advice to career girls. She made appearances on Johnny Carson Virginia Graham Mike Douglas.

TV Guide Aug 5-11 1967

TV Guide Aug 5-11 1967

Yet for all her success, an article that ran in TV Guide in 1967 questioned Walters’s star power.

Asking where all this actually leaves Barbara Walters?

“Strangely enough,” the article said ”the answer is approximately where she was when she started. She’s still nowhere near the big leagues inhabited by women like Zsa Zsa or even by Arlene Francis.

 

TV Guide 1975

In spite of beating all records for durability on the show, she would have to wait a decade before becoming co-host of the Today Show in 1974.

She still had to succumb to sexist rules.

When she was paired with Frank McGee on the “Today” show in 1971, McGee insisted — and NBC management agreed — that he would ask the first three questions in any hard news interview before Walters could talk.

Vintage Newsweek Cover Oct 11, 1976 . Personality Zsa Zsa Gabor

If Zsa Zsa Gabor represented the big league  I’m not so sure I would want to join it. Barbara would go on to create her own big league, one that never existed before.

Nine years later Barbara Walters would make TV history in 1976 as the first woman to co anchor a nightly newscast. It launched on Oct 4, 1976, and she was paid a million bucks.

Vintage Ad for the premier ABC Evening News with Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner. 1976

Vintage Ad for the premier ABC Evening News with Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner. 1976

Paired with grey-haired, dour-faced Harry Reasoner who grumpily referred to them as “the first heterosexual anchor team” on network TV  it was a rocky marriage that would soon head to divorce.

He was downright hostile.

The team dissolved after just 2 years and it would be another 15 before another woman was named an anchor when Connie Chung and Dan Rather paired up on CBS.

Barbara Walters would go on to become the most influential and powerful TV journalist of either sex.

And it was she who allowed that to be a choice.

She was Greatest of all time.

What a woman!

 

 

6 comments

  1. I grew up with Barbara on TV. As a little girl who would go on to be a writer, she was a huge influence on my belief that I could be anything I wanted. Representation is so important.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. She inspired generations of young women to go into journalism and created a new awareness that a solid journalist could be a woman as well as a man. She was a treasure and left a powerful legacy.

    Like

  3. Adelyn Ivy

    I Think Barbara Walters was a trailblazer for Women

    Liked by 1 person

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