Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 9, 2014

JEFFREY McCALL: Barbara Walters a TV personality, not a journalist

Calling her iconic, legendary exaggerates her status


Kokomo Tribune

---- — The ABC hype machine is in overdrive as it trumpets the retirement of Barbara Walters from on-air broadcasting. Walters’ last broadcast will be on the May 16 edition of “The View.” ABC will honor her with a two-hour prime-time special that evening.

ABC’s president, Anne Sweeney, gushed about Walters, “Her influence on television, and American culture, will resonate for decades to come.” The CEO of Disney, ABC’s parent company, Bob Iger, said, “In this business, there are legends, there are icons and then there is Barbara Walters.” His effusive praise went on, saying Walters “set the standard for journalistic excellence for more than 50 years.”

Walters did, indeed, make a name for herself and made mountains of money for ABC with her prime-time specials, and her work on the newsmagazine “20/20” and daytime chatfest “The View.” Her career deserves a retrospective, but from a standpoint outside of the ABC public relations office.

Walters broke into the media business as a behind-the-scenes writer at NBC, eventually working her way up to be co-host of “Today.” She entered the network news world with no journalistic credentials, a fact that bothered the grizzled news veterans of the day.

She made history in 1976 when ABC hired her to be the first woman to co-anchor a network evening newscast. The gimmick of hiring a “Today” host to do a serious newscast never worked. Walters had built her career as a morning gabber, and that didn’t translate to the serious news anchor desk.

Walters came on board when the ABC evening news show was mired in last place in the ratings. When she departed the anchor chair in less than two years, ABC was still dead last.

Walters’ co-anchor at ABC was veteran newsman Harry Reasoner. It was clear to viewers that Reasoner didn’t like working with Walters. Reasoner was a nationally recognized journalist who made a name for himself at CBS as a reporter and founding host of “60 Minutes.” ABC brought Walters on board with a million-dollar-per-year contract, five times what the veteran Reasoner was making at the time. No wonder he was miffed.

Television critic Karl Meyer wrote at the time of ABC’s decision to put Walters on the news anchor desk, “It further blurs the distinction between journalism and entertainment.” Entertainers made huge money, not journalists. Entertainers were celebrities, journalists were supposed to be — journalists.

ABC then made the wise decision to let Walters shine in prime time doing soft interviews on “20/20” and hosting specials. She developed a following of viewers who wanted to know more about high-profile luminaries than just their stances on issues. The viewers, less likely to be newshounds, found Walters’ conversational interviewing style to be quite watchable, even if the questions focused more on personal angles and emotion than real news.

Her “Most Fascinating People” shows were annual ratings draws. Fascination is in the eyes of the beholder, but one has to wonder what Walters found fascinating in some of her picks. Camilla Parker Bowles was the most fascinating person of 2005. Honey Boo Boo made the list in 2012. Prince George made the list last year, even though he had yet to cut his first tooth. The Kardashians and Miley Cyrus made the list twice. Such selections provided cultural legitimacy for people who were more carnival attractions than fascinating. Even though these shows were produced by ABC News, this was not the stuff of journalism.

Walters was a pioneer in the sense that she helped develop the world of infotainment, the unhealthy mix of news and entertainment. She was the first “news” person to get paid the superstar money. She interviewed many world leaders, including every president in the last 50 years. She succeeded as a woman in an industry that has been largely dominated by males. Her career is noteworthy, to be sure, but calling her legendary and iconic simply exaggerates her status.

ABC has announced plans to name its New York news headquarters in her honor. ABC must have forgotten that legitimate journalists, such as Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds, also used to work at ABC. Given that Walters was more television personality than television journalist, the canonization that comes with building naming seems out of proportion.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at jeffmccall@depauw.edu.