Barbara Walters has got staying power despite years of persistent sexism

February 02, 1992|By Mike Duffy | Mike Duffy,Knight-Ridder News Service

In the long run, surviving can be its own sweet reward.

And Barbara Walters knows a little something about surviving.

She survived the mistreatment of persistent sexism in the working world of the "Today" show at NBC, where testosterone ruled the airwaves during the 1960s and early 1970s.

She survived the mean-spirited backbiting of jealous male colleagues after becoming a million-dollar anchorwoman for ABC News in 1976.

And she survived blistering pop culture parody -- being roasted to sarcastic perfection by Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live." All hail Baba Wawa.

Heck, she even survived a notorious cement-head celebrity interview with Warren Beatty in 1990, when "Dick Tracy" was about to open.

So whoa.

Do you realize that this means Barbara Walters, thriving survivor, has been on camera as a TV personality and female broadcasting pioneer for 28 years? It's enough to make even Ms. Walters pause for contemplation.

"It was, on the one hand, very exhilarating and, on the other hand, very depressing," Ms. Walters told TV critics recently in Los Angeles, describing her mixed feelings about all those years on the air.

From "Today" show window dressing -- the female accessory to a male co-host -- 60-year-old Barbara Walters has progressed to the status of genuine, long-running network news superstar.

She first gained major fame and stature with her interviews of world leaders, from Anwar Sadat to the Shah of Iran. And she has added to her success as co-anchor of the popular ABC newsmagazine "20/20" and host of her own series of widely popular celebrity interview specials.

Still, the pain from those earlier years lingers.

"I certainly have been sexually discriminated against," Ms. Walters says. "And I know the feeling, and I know what it's like."

What it was like on the "Today" show was sitting by while the late Frank McGee hogged all the hard news interviews.

"When Frank was on that show, I wasn't allowed to ask a question of the Washington guest until he had asked three," Ms. Walters recalls.

"I look at the women who are doing their own programs -- and today you have more women on the network as, quote, stars almost than the men -- and I feel enormously proud of them. I mean, look how far we have all come."

But not so far, she added, that the networks couldn't use a lot more women at the executive level. And there has long been the hassle of dealing with the misperception of her as some sort of shrill, overpaid, overly aggressive news harpy.

That sour image was only given a bigger boost during Ms. Walters' brief, traumatic stint as co-anchor of the ABC nightly newscast with the late Harry Reasoner. It was a not a very well-kept secret that Mr. Reasoner deeply resented newcomer Walters and her fat contract.

"I don't want to make this maudlin or sound terrible, but there were wounds that I probably in some ways still feel," Ms. Walters says.

She also holds some rather dizzy, off-the-wall memories. One author was disappointed when he couldn't dig up any bedroom dirt on her.

"The man who wrote the book said that what he wanted to make the book sell was to show that I'd slept my way to the top. And he couldn't find it, and the book was so dull, it didn't sell," says a bemused Ms. Walters, who is twice divorced and has a grown daughter, Jacqueline. "And I don't know whether I was happy or sad about it."

It's been nearly 16 years since Ms. Walters joined ABC News. And recently, after being courted by CBS, she signed a new, five-year deal with ABC. In this instance, familiarity bred contentment.

"I know where the ladies room is," Ms. Walters jokes. "I'm happy here, and I'm comfortable."

Over the past 20 years, when she scored many of her biggest interviews with international leaders, the whole TV interview game changed, Ms. Walters says, especially since the Global Village started bouncing off the satellites.

There isn't a head of state who doesn't know as much about television as the people who work in TV, Ms. Walters says. International leaders are incredibly sophisticated about the medium.

Of her major international political interviews, Ms. Walters says those with Anwar Sadat were the most memorable. Right now, there's a shortage of interesting world leaders, she says.

"We sat around one day trying to talk about who was charismatic when it came to world leaders. And boy, we couldn't even count them on one hand."

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