Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflecting on the life of Barbara Walters, from a Minnesota journalist’s perspective January 4, 2023

The cover of Walters’ book, published in 1970. (Photo credit: Amazon)

WHEN NEWS BROKE that broadcast journalist Barbara Walters died on Friday at the age of 93, I reacted with disbelief. I didn’t think she was 93, older than my mom would have been if she was still living.

Once I got over that surprise, I began to reflect on Walters’ career as a journalist. As an experienced journalist myself, albeit in print journalism, I connect on a professional level.

BLAZING THE WAY FOR WOMEN

I have always admired Walters, called “a trailblazer” in her field. The description fits. She blazed the way for women in a profession dominated by men. This was true for many women of her time, not just those in journalism. Even I, nearly 30 years her junior, experienced challenges as a female newspaper reporter in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I often felt the sense that men, especially those in positions of power, did not like me. They ignored me, tried to intimidate me, pressured me not to report what had been said at a public meeting. I never caved.

I felt fortunate to have a publisher/editor who backed me up every time, who supported, encouraged and mentored me in my first job at a rural Minnesota weekly. I hope, expect, Walters had the same behind-the-scenes support because some male co-workers didn’t hide their disdain for her. When I watched a clip of her co-anchor dismissively addressing her on the ABC Evening News, I cringed. That Walters maintained her composure is admirable.

SHE DID HER HOMEWORK

There are many reasons to admire Walters. She had a way with interviewees that prompted them to open up to her. Part of that came from being well-prepared. She did her homework—researched backgrounds and prepared questions (written on index cards) well in advance. I followed that same preparatory process for interviews. It works. I relied on my advanced list of questions, my listening skills, my copious note-taking (no recording an interview ever) and my observations to get a story.

Walters never backed down. She asked the tough questions. She perfected the art of the interview. To watch her interviews, especially those from her “The Barbara Walters Special(s)”, is to observe a gifted journalist. She ended each interview with an open-ended opportunity to add what may have been missed in her questioning. I did the same. We were thorough, an indication of the perfectionist trait we share.

THE LESSER-KNOWN FACTS ABOUT WALTERS

In recent days I learned other facts about Walters that reveal her personal side. She learned patience and empathy from her older sister Jackie, who had “a mental disability” (I’m uncertain what that means), Walters once said. She named her daughter Jackie (whom she adopted, following multiple miscarriages) in honor of her sister.

And one final thing. Walters sent handwritten thank you notes and other cards. I do, too. She understood, and I do also, the value in taking time to express gratitude, in the power of the word, whether written or spoken.

Walters leaves a legacy that stretches beyond her trailblazing the way for female journalists. She leaves a legacy, too, of kindness.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Advertisement
 

20 Responses to “Reflecting on the life of Barbara Walters, from a Minnesota journalist’s perspective”

  1. Admired icon of the journalist world that will be truly missed. She lead the way for so many women in so many men dominated fields to push through the glass ceilings and did it with poise, grace, integrity, and tenacity. A fine example of what we can all achieve when given the opportunity and support.

  2. beth Says:

    She was definitely a pioneer who led the way for so many women. I love knowing more of her story and the detail of her handwriting the notes is wonderful.

  3. She was a powerful woman. A force to be reckoned with. I think that she was someone that women in all walks of life admired and respected. Truly a trail blazer.

  4. I grew up watching her on the Today Show with my dad and always felt that she was a one of a kind journalist with integrity. She seemed ageless to me.

  5. You know someone has the touch when you lean in to listen to their interviews and Barbara was like that for me. I also loved watching Bill Geist in action and now his son Willie Geist. There are those people that you just tune into and a lot of it for me is their voice, their questioning and even more their listening (and empathy), and then just the candidness and humanness they add in to the interview. There are a few others that come to mind that have me leaning in instead of clicking channels. Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  6. Valerie Says:

    I was surprised by her age also. She left an amazing legacy.

    I, too, enjoyed learning she wrote hand-written notes to others. Classy!

  7. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    I too was in disbelief when I heard the news, I had no idea she was in her 90’s. I especially like watching her interviews, she was so caring and conducted herself in a respectful manor. Great woman, she will be missed.

  8. Norma Says:

    I felt the same as you about Barbara Walters. It was too obvious how certain men felt about her. She was the best!!! Her death is a great loss.

    • Indeed, Walters was the best. Good to hear from your Norma. I’ve been thinking of you in California with all the rain and flooding.

      • Norma Says:

        Yes, we’re finally getting rain. Northern and Southern California and the coastal areas are getting the bad weather. One of my grandsons lives in Mt. Shasta, and they have been warned about an avalanche. Here in the valley, we have been getting the wet and windy stuff, which is more than we’ve had in many years. However it hasn’t been extremely cold. It’s staying in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. However, it did reach 71 yesterday. It is quite interesting !!

      • I’m thankful you’re finally getting some much-needed rain. I hope your grandson remains safe. Good to hear from you, Norma. Every time we have a winter storm here, I think of you and how much you’ve always wanted to experience a snowstorm.

  9. Sandra Says:

    This is a really nice column. Barbara was a human that would not be happy being any age, not going full into life, much less 93. PBS did an article with her biographer that revealed she got The Today Show by Frank McKee dying unexpectedly in his 50s and a contract stipulation if Frank left, she’d be host. Now, in the world of high powered journalism, she had good legals to not have that broken. She was meant to be. Many have a higher Power to thank. Including all us viewers. She was chosen to be important to history.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.