Barbara Walters was America's TV's first evening news anchor, but in addition to that, she set a standard for television journalism though her tireless work ethic.
ABC News reported Sunday night that Ms. Walters will anchor and report for the organization for one more year before retiring in May 2014. She will make the official announcement Monday on “The View,” an all women talk show she created in 1997.
“There’s only one Barbara Walters,” ABC News President Ben Sherwood said. “And we look forward to making her final year on television as remarkable, path-breaking and news-making as Barbara herself.”
She began her TV journalism career in 1961 at NBC’s “Today” show, before moving to ABC’s “Evening News” in 1976 and later becoming co-host of “20/20.” Her decades long career has included interviews with some of the world’s most interesting personalities including Saddam Hussein, Michael Jackson, Margaret Thatcher, and every US president and first lady since Richard Nixon.
In 1977, Walters landed an interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He took her on a tour of the Bay of Pigs and into the mountains where he had been a guerilla. She grilled him about the country’s control over the media, asking why he didn’t allow dissenting opinions to be aired. “Barbara, we do not have your same conceptions,” Mr. Castro said during the interview. “Our concept of the freedom of the press is not yours. And I say this very honestly, I have nothing to hide.”
The interview later aired in Cuba – more than three hours of questioning, minus his views on prisoners and torture – the first time an interview with an American journalist aired there, Walters said in an interview with the Archive of American Television.
One of her biggest scoops came later that year, when Walters did a joint interview with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin – the first time the two leaders appeared together for the media. She beat out Walter Cronkite for the interview. It was the first time that President Sadat visited Israel – a step Walters called courageous due to their tumultuous relationship.
“It was a historic interview,” Walters told the Archive of American Television.
Fast forward to 2012, when Walters interviewed another Middle East leader: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. In his first interview with Western media since the beginning of Syrian uprising, he denied allegations that he gave orders to attack or torture Syria’s citizens.
“There was no command to kill or be brutal,” he said.
Not all her interviews were hard-hitting journalism, as Walters often sat down with celebrities or other people making headlines – like Monica Lewinsky.
Walters’s interview with Ms. Lewinsky had more than 74 million viewers when it aired in 1999 – a record for ABC, the Daily Beast reported.
“I have a lot of healing to do,” Lewinsky told Walters, referring to the media coverage of her affair with President Bill Clinton. Lewinsky told Walters that if she ever had children, she would tell them that “Mommy made a big mistake.”
“And that is the understatement of the year,” Walters said at the end of the segment.
Whether she’s remembered for serious journalism or celebrity infotainment, there is no doubt that Walters pioneered a path for other female TV journalists.
“Saying that Barbara Walters blazed a trail for a generation of female journalists would understate her impact,” MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski, told the Daily Beast in March, when rumors of Walter’s retirement first surfaced. “Barbara broke the rules, made up a new set for women to work by, and broke them again in a sweeping, breathtaking career that revolutionized broadcast news and made my career possible."
TV anchor Dan Rather told the Daily Beast that Walters deserves to retire after decades of working against gender discrimination in the TV news industry.
“Barbara is a marvelously determined person. But a lot of people had the dream, and even had the determination, but they don’t have the work ethic that Barbara has had,” he said in March. “And can you imagine how difficult it was for any woman to break through on television? Barbara did it. A few other women have broken through, strictly on the entertainment side, but Barbara was the first one in news who really climbed to the top of Everest.”