TV newswoman Barbara Walters retired from on-air work last week on “The View” and ABC News, having lived and broadcast so long in the mass media age that she outlasted the term “newswoman.”
At 84, Walters even outlasted most of the technology that brought her into America’s living rooms – first as a tea-pouring “Today” girl in the 1960s; then as the first woman to co-anchor a nightly newscast in the mid-’70s; followed by 35 years as popular culture’s grande dame of the televised interview – adapting her skills to the speed with which news sparks conversations and celebrities melt down.
She’s one of America’s last good ears, allowing even the most notorious among us to have a say, asking many (if not always all) of the questions we wanted answers to, while never seeming to make the occasion about herself.
Her TV career, most of it with ABC News, was preoccupied with “the most fascinating” people and topics. She put a premium on listening and made it her brand – even when she started and co-hosted a successful midmorning kaffeeklatsch in 1997 called “The View.”
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People who compare “The View” to a chattering hen yard haven’t watched it closely enough to see that its core value is rooted in listening to one another, even in moments of utter cacophony. Over there, stage left, was Barbara Walters – mostly listening, waiting to chime in. In this reactionary world of ours, who on earth still waits to chime in?
Two weeks ago, when V. Stiviano, a companion of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, reached the part of her express-ticket scandal ride where one selects an empathetic TV inquisitor from an array of offers, she went where so very many presidents, first ladies, movie stars, despots, criminals, candidates, rock legends, heroes and villains have gone before: to the gauzy-but-somehow-still-clear gaze of the Barbara Walters lens.
The interview, which aired May 2 on “20/20” (a show Walters helped rescue), will not be remembered for anything much, except maybe that it will be Walters’ final “get” in an endless list of them. It’s a long way from her interview with Fidel Castro in 1977. It’s a long way from her following President Richard Nixon to China in 1972. It’s even a long way from the two-hour, 1999 interview she did with Monica Lewinsky that lured between 50 million and 74 million viewers, the sort of non-football TV ratings that simply can’t be had anymore.
In her dotage, Walters lost some of her edge and opened herself to criticism of being too gentle or too allied with her subjects. Ever since America swooned over her $1 million contract to jump from NBC to ABC in 1976, her own fame became difficult to separate from the fame of her subjects.
Others will fill in. There is no shortage of TV and multimedia outlets inviting the famous and infamous to sit upon new sofas and tell us how they feel.
But with Walters’ departure, we are losing one of TV’s more neutral listeners. We’re also losing one of TV’s dwindling safe spaces. Walters may have gone softer over time, but do not underestimate the worth of a safe space in a culture that now seems to prefer satirical ridicule and constant interruption as a form of conversation.