“I just want to say ‘this is my legacy.’ ” So said Barbara Walters in a truly stunning and historic TV moment.
Just to make sure we thickheaded couch potatoes got the point, she repeated herself: “These are my legacy.”
What we were watching was an orderly single file reception line of TV newswomen who queued up to give the abdicating Empress of Broadcast Journalism a farewell hug and a dry buss on the cheek in her final appearance on “The View,” the morning gabfest she invented.
Oprah Winfrey introduced them. The line of apostles that followed was mind-boggling, no matter how you looked at it:
Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley, Joan Lunden, Connie Chung, Robin Roberts, Elizabeth Vargas, Savannah Guthrie, Maria Shriver, Gayle King, Natalie Morales, Lisa Ling, Kathie Lee Gifford, Mika Brzezinski, Hoda Kotb, Paula Zahn, Amy Robach, Juju Chang and Tamron Hall.
There was no divadom in that line. Everyone was there not just to pay their respect but, in fact, their homage to the Mother of Them All. They may have looked, for all the world, as if they were a reception line for the Mother of the Bride (or, more grimly, those at a funeral waiting to pay final respects at an open casket bier). But it’s likely neither hell nor high water was likely to keep any of them from that particular appointed round. For a TV newswoman or female morning presence of any consequence, that particular conga line was the place to be.
By all means, if you like, make a game out of all those who were either among the uninvited or the unavailable: Norah O’Donnell, for one. (OK, now it’s your turn.)
Previously, in Walters’ “farewell week” on “The View” all 11 co-hosts in the 18-year history of the show were reunited to say their farewells, including such troublesome types as Star Jones and Rosie O’Donnell.
Again, to make sure on that final Friday “View” with Walters that we at home fully understood the legacy of female TV journalists and morning talkers we were dealing with here, Walters’ longtime producer Bill Geddie made sure we saw the most relevant clip from Friday evening’s two hours of “Barbara’s Greatest Hits” (whose official ABC prime-time title was “Barbara Walters: Her Story”).
And that was the clip in which Walters herself talked about the disastrous moment when ABC paid her the then-mind-rocking $1 million salary to sit next to a secretly fuming Harry Reasoner on “The ABC Evening News.”
“The news business was a man’s business” back then, said Walters on Friday’s two-hour Barbara-fest. “He was insulted. He thought he was being degraded.”
She admitted that the audience was no more tickled by her presence than Reasoner. It was, she said, the one-hour specials ABC also contracted her for that saved her. They also launched her into the hegemony that every other woman in TV news would want to pay tribute to.
Poor Harry Reasoner. He came from a world in which journalism, when it graduated, turned into literature. But Walters was arguably the most important single pioneering figure in the journalistic world that was yet to come – the world where journalism, when it graduated, turned into show business.
It was Don Hewitt’s “60 Minutes” that first revealed that in TV history. No one could argue that “60 Minutes” wasn’t, when it wanted, very high-level TV journalism – at least part of the time anyway. But by the time the show got finished with ambush interviews, Mike Wallace’s prosecutorial inquistions, worshipful showbiz profiles and lavish intrusions into Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous of all sorts, “60 Minutes” found itself in the revolutionary position of the highest-rated show in all of television.
Clearly some reassessment of TV’s New World Order was necessary.
Barbara Walters was that reassessment. She was the next step in TV evolution. And, as she pointed out, she brought along a whole new role for women in TV journalism – and TV in general – by the time she was finished.
In her autobiography “Audition,” she wrote about her former “Today Show” co-host Frank McGee’s insistence that because he was of the male persuasion, the first three questions of any guest on the “Today Show” belonged to him and him alone.
In the world where journalism had become viable – and powerful – show business, that sort of second-class citizenship wasn’t going to last.
The brilliance of Barbara Walters is that she could maintain journalistic credibility while giving evidence that, quite literally, show business was in her blood.
Her father was Lou Walters, the proprietor of several different Latin Quarter nightclubs. She’d known major celebrities from the time she was a child. They were part of the family business.
Despite her father’s decidedly erratic financial fortunes, she was raised in a privileged world. She went to Sarah Lawrence only because her first choice college, Wellesley, didn’t say yes fast enough (Diane Sawyer, apparently, was accepted with greater velocity. Wellesley is her alma mater.)
Walters never stopped being a “lady” of the old school. When I wrote a laudatory TV column about her invention of “The View” and about its very first show, she wrote me a thank you note.
All of Walters’ conspicuous cred as a “lady” of the old school enabled her to get away with hugely un-ladylike queries as a TV journalist.
But that’s because she was always everybody’s Aunt Barbara, whether she was talking to David Letterman, Fidel Castro, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Monica Lewinsky or V. Stiviano.
As the Western world’s Aunt Barbara, she was going to sit you down at the kitchen table and ask you about all the things you weren’t necessarily going to talk about with your mother. She’d get you to level, no matter what. And if it made you cry, it was all OK because, after all, she was your Aunt Barbara. Right?
Which meant that she could, either explicitly or implicitly, chastise you if your answers didn’t completely line up with those a concerned aunt would approve.
Who better to actually bring world leaders together?
The sheer insanity of all this to those brought up in the Harry Reasoner view of things – that there was “hard news” and “soft news” and maintaining the difference defined integrity – was something journalism was going to have to live with.
What it has to live with now is that journalism, when it graduates, now dissolves into an Internet world of instantaneous tweets.
Journalism, that middle term of the equation, isn’t going away. It still turns into literature sometimes. And it has quite often turned into show business ever since Barbara Walters became the TV empress of entire process.
It’s not for nothing that the final guest given the most time on her final “View” was her friend Michael Douglas, with whom she shares a birthdate (along with Douglas’ wife Catherine Zeta-Jones.)
Show business. Pure show business. Just as the title of her autobiography is a show business word, not a journalistic one: “Audition.”
For her farewell week, what we learned is that, for quite a while now, it has been the rest of the world that was auditioning.
Barbara Walters got the part, long ago.