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Journalist and Broadcast Pioneer Barbara Walters Dies at 93

The queen of interviews hosted ‘Today,’ ‘The View,’ ‘20/20,’ among others

Barbara Walters attends a signing for her book "Audition" at Temple Judea on May 20, 2008 in Coral Gables, Florida.
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Barbara Walters, who died on Friday at 93, advised young journalists to better their craft by asking subjects about their childhoods — to get to the heart of their personalities.

Walters’ brother, Burton, died of pneumonia at 3, and her early years were largely shaped by the fact that her older sister, Jackie, was mentally disabled. “It gave me a childhood that was sad and kind of lonely, because there were things I couldn’t do, like have friends over,” she said. “I think it gave me empathy.”

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Walters was broadcast journalism’s preeminent female pioneer. She interviewed eight consecutive U.S. presidents and first ladies from Richard and Pat Nixon through Barack and Michelle Obama, and conducted notable interviews with leaders the likes of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iran’s Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi. She was the first American journalist to sit down with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, provocatively asking if he had ever ordered anyone killed. “Nyet,” he replied. Her last on-air interview was with presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2015.

The 11-time Emmy nominee (and one-time winner) capped her long and authoritative career as the cohost, creator and executive producer of The View, an influential daytime talk show with an all-women panel. When she retired in 2014 after 16 seasons, veteran news personality Larry King remarked, “I thought Barbara was a forever person. I thought she and television were like ham and eggs.” Walters told AARP’s Myrna Blyth “it was the right time.”

She forged a reputation for scooping her rivals by outworking them. “I do so much homework,” she said, “I know more about the person than he or she does about himself.” CBS’s Bob Schieffer called her his “toughest competitor,” and Walter Cronkite famously asked Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, “Did Barbara get anything I didn’t?”

The daughter of impresario Lou Walters, who opened New York’s Latin Quarter nightclub and booked acts for legendary showrooms in Miami Beach and Las Vegas, Barbara was born in Boston and studied English at Sarah Lawrence College. She started as a publicist, then producer of a children’s program on NBC’s New York affiliate, and worked her way into newswriting and a stint as reporter at large on the Today show.

Battling discrimination from male colleagues like Today’s Frank McGee, who tried to relegate her to “girlie interviews” and bar her from questioning serious newsmakers, she became the first woman to coanchor a network evening newscast, paired with Harry Reasoner on ABC World News Tonight in 1976. Her prominence and unprecedented $1 million salary paved the way for anchorwomen Jessica Savitch and Diane Sawyer. Perhaps due to tension between Walters and Reasoner, who resented having a coanchor, the show suffered poor ratings, and she joined the newsmagazine 20/20 with Hugh Downs in 1979, serving more than 25 years as cohost, solo anchor and producer.

But it was in hosting The Barbara Walters Specials that she became a huge media star. And in practicing what came to be known as personality journalism, she elevated the celebrity interview to an art. Her 1999 heart-to-heart with Monica Lewinsky was watched by 74 million people, as she asked the former White House intern what she would tell her future children. (“Mommy made a big mistake.”) And when Walters corralled troubled boxer Mike Tyson and his then-wife Robin Givens, she probed the latter with a bold question: “Does he hit you?”


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She tried to pose questions that viewers would ask, she said. “My idea of hell is that I finish doing an interview and someone says, ‘Did you ask such and such?’ and I think, ‘I didn’t ask that,’” she told Oprah's Masters Class. Walters was sometimes mocked for her questions, famously when she asked Katharine Hepburn, “What kind of tree would you be, if you think you’re a tree?” (For the record: an oak.) Johnny Carson never let her live it down. But her biggest ribbing came in the form of Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character Baba Wawa, the news anchor who couldn’t pronounce her R’s. Though the impersonation spoke to her impact on popular culture, “I didn’t like it,” Walters admitted. “[But] I guess it’s good to be made fun of. I guess that means you’re slightly famous.”

Walters, who wrote two books, was married four times (twice to Lorimar Television cofounder Merv Adelson), and had a daughter, Jackie, named for her sister. In 2019, her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence, opened the Barbara Walters Campus Center, for which she donated $15 million.