Friday, April 19, 2024

RIP Barbara Walters, Trailblazer in Media, the First Among All Women in Television News, Fought for Power in a Man’s Game


There will be a lot of obits and reminiscences about Barbara Walters tonight. She has died at age 93 after several years of fighting old age, her greatest enemy.

There’s no question that Barbara was the trailblazer for women in all media. She did what no woman would do early on: she fought for her place among men in television journalism. She didn’t take no as answer.

Back in 1991, Barbara was at a crossroads at ABC. She was renegotiating her contract with Roone Arledge and she literally wanted to be on TV all the time. This was 30 years ago, so she was in her early 60s and had no idea of retirement. (This was before The View.) She wanted to do her show, “20/20,” and fill in on network news and on “Good Morning America.”

This was not easily accomplished. I was in her office doing an interview with her for Vogue. The story never ran. She had editorial control and didn’t like the personal questions I asked about her relationship with Roy Cohn, or anything about her father, the famous nightclub owner Lou Walters. She just wanted to push her agenda.

While I was there she took a call from Henry Kissinger, who helping in the negotiation. She was single minded in not letting some young freelancer come in and overturn her apple cart. I was mad back then but I can kind of understand it now. Cohn may have helped her with Nixon and with some familu things, but basically she saw herself as a lone ranger. No one had really ever helped her, and she was determined to continue her career proudly.

She signed the deal, she invented “The View,” she was competitive with Diane Sawyer like crazy and anyone else who got in her way. Men didn’t like that, and called her names. She didn’t care. She did it her way.

A few years ago, ABC tried to get her off The View and off the air because was old. They announced her retirement. Barbara wouldn’t have it. I ran into her when she got out of a cab at a Broadway show opening — she’d been going to a lot of them with her pal, Cindy Adams. I said, “Barbara, are you retiring?”

She looked at me sharply and said “Not on your life!”

If you can find a copy at this hour, Dan Rather wrote a great anecdote about Barbara from their days covering Nixon. I’m paraphrasing right now, but there was a long line of top reporters waiting to talk to Nixon or someone. Dan remembered that Barbara got on her hands and knees and crawled under the legs of all the correspondents until she got to the front of the line. And that’s the whole story of Barbara Walters in a nutshell.

PS When I say no one helped her, let me modify that. For two decades, Barbara had one key friend in the trenches, the columnist, Liz Smith. Liz promoted every one of Barbara’s segments on ABC, gave her exposure she’d never have had otherwise. Liz knew the transaction between them– they were business friends going to back to the early 60s. But they respected each other because they’d traveled similar paths to power in the most important city in the world. I really hope they’re having a stiff drink right now and doing their own reminiscing.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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