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