Barbara Walters auditions for readers
America's first female newscaster shares her memories.
Barbara Walters hopes we like her. At least, that is the lasting impression from her recent memoir, Audition. It’s hard not to be fascinated by the arc of her career in television news, which includes roles as first woman to cohost a morning news program and first to coanchor a nightly newscast.
Like so many of her revealing interviews, Walters begins her own story with her childhood. What influences does she claim set the stage for one of the most powerful women in television? Show business and a developmentally challenged older sister.
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Her father, Lou Walters, was the imagination and drive behind the Latin Quarter nightclub, the most famous nightclub in America in the 1930s and 1940s. As Walters opened clubs in Boston, New York, and Miami, he shuttled his family up and down the East Coast. He made and lost fortunes several times over, instilling in his youngest daughter, Barbara, a keen sense of the erratic flows in the channels of money and power and a fighter’s will to stay on top.
His older daughter, Jackie, was fair-haired, pretty, and unable to care for herself. Instead of being sent away to an institution or a special school, she was kept tight within the family circle, triggering both resentment and guilt in her younger sister, who was trying to lead a normal schoolgirl life amid the glitz and unpredictability of their father’s profession.
“Much of the need I had to prove myself, to achieve, to provide, to protect, can be traced to my feelings about Jackie,” writes Walters. “Some may call it ambition.... Some may call it insecurity.... But as I look back, it feels to me that my life has been one long audition – an attempt to make a difference and to be accepted.”
In addition to her drive, Walters’s success also had a lot to do with timing. By 1953, half of all American homes owned at least one TV set, but it was still a minor medium for news and entertainment. The only respected journalists worked in print, and nightclubs and theaters were in their heyday. That same year, Walters was cutting her media chops by producing a children’s show called “Ask the Camera” for WNBT, NBC’s affiliate in New York – and sleeping with her married boss.
This motif recurs again and again as Walters shares her narrative: Her talents expand into new venues, and she is continually attracted to and unable to stay committed to influential men.
If this were the story of a man’s rise in power that disclosed the nature and number of his bedmates along the way, it would draw yawns. But present the same story from a female perspective and it becomes a bestseller.
Perhaps it has something to do with Walters’s instincts for knowing what viewers at home want to see: unexpected relationships, lasting friendships, and the vulnerability of the powerful.
The maturing of her talents, becoming the first female cohost of NBC’s morning program “Today” in the 1970s, coincided with the progress of and backlash against women in the workplace.
Her presence was a source of agitation to her male cohosts, Frank McGee on “Today,” and later Harry Reasoner on “ABC Evening News.” As a result, Walters found much comfort in being sent out of the studio and into the field to record interviews. One of those trips happened to be President Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. While Nixon was announcing “This was the week that changed the world,” the world of news reporting changed as well.
“The China trip probably marked the seminal moment in which television assumed superiority as America’s primary source of news,” Walters writes. She was only one of three women journalists invited on the trip, and the only female broadcaster.