Thank You, Barbara Walters – 11 Lessons From Her Ground-Breaking Career


Because of Barbara Walters, women have much more power, money and influence – and a stronger voice, more career opportunities and more options in their lives.

As Oprah Winfrey put it, “Without Barbara Walters there wouldn’t have been me – or any other woman you see on evening, morning, and daily news” (posted on Twitter by Ann Marie Lipinski of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard)

Walters’ cavalcade of extraordinary interviews with hundreds of world leaders, celebrities, artists and business leaders are far too many to list, and easily found online, from ABC News to Wikipedia. The Television Academy Foundation Archives has a trove of interviews with her about her work, her style and various career highlights and controversies. This series from the Foundation shows that she took awkward questions as well as she gave them.

There are so many lessons for each of us to reflect on, from her career, her choices, her style and how she responded to life’s travails, that it’s fitting to explore some as we embark on a new calendar year. Here are 11:

1. Embrace who you are: Barbara Walters could have easily dumbed it down to get along better with the culture of the white-male dominated era of her early career, but she chose not to and stood firm. Instead, she boldly, tenaciously and courageously embraced and pursued her intellect, her ambition and her formidable skills and sought to be among the top in her field. And. She. Won.

2. Find your mastery in your field and truly master it: Walters became known as a master interviewer, including her signature post-Oscars series. Every journalist interviews people, but Walters made it an art and pulled her audience in to their conversation in a way like no one else.

3. Over-prepare: Being prepared increases your confidence in a performance of any job, because it grounds you, keeps you centered and unflappable. It helped her a lot when she confronted Donald Trump in August, 1990 on his claims of success, for example.

4. Listen to the answer. Really listen: She was known for her questions, but if you watch how Walters conducted her interviews, she is very present with her interviewees and listens closely to what they say and responds to it. Many journalists are focused on their next question. Not her. She listened and responded first. That made a huge difference.

5. Ask the tough questions, bring the facts: She always asked respectfully, armed with the facts, the data, the sources, and interrupted when they challenged her facts.

6. Disarm them with a respectful, almost kind tone of voice, and a strategic smile or laugh: In every interview, no matter how confrontational the question, Walters’ disarmed even the most difficult people, from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to Donald Trump, Monica Lewinsky, or Harry Reasoner. That strategic smile and light laugh came in handy when, for example, Reasoner insulted her in their first appearance together as co-anchors on the evening news in 1976 (he clearly did not want her there).

7. Seize opportunities even if they aren’t ideal: Harry Reasoner was not a “reasonable” cohost when she joined him on the anchor desk in 1976, the first woman to anchor an evening newscast. The stories of their clashes on air and off are news business legend, but what it showed was that she seized the opportunity and made it work for her, somehow. And then there’s the fact that she was paid $1 million when she came to ABC News then, the first female journalist to receive such compensation; they had to raise Reasoner’s pay to be equitable with hers.

8. Seek other points of view, including those who disagree with you: In her historic news interviews and stories on ABC News’ “20/20,” Walters actively sought a range of views. She even created and launched a show just to do that: “The View.” Walters intentionally designed “The View” in 1997 as a panel of only women across the generations and the political spectrum. It continues on air to this day.

9. Negotiate well and own what you create. Literally, legally. When she was the first female journalist to earn $1 million in 1976, by ABC News, having been lured away from NBC”s “The Today Show,” it rocked the business world, not just the news business. But she and her agent knew how to negotiate. She did the same when she created “The View,” owning the content as executive producer and creator with Bill Geddie, her business partner in her production company, Barwall. Ask for what you want and need.

10. Give a voice to the various dimensions of who you are – and who others are: Audiences embraced the personal questions Walters often asked her interviewees, even awkward ones – like asking Monica Lewinsky about showing her thong to the President of the United States, Bill Clinton. But what Walters really did was recognize that we are whole people with a range of quirks, choices, and dimensions, and that those quirks make us human to an audience – and make great television. She did this when she became a mother, and altered her schedule to be there for her daughter, too.

11. Your style matters: Through compliments and criticism, Walters maintained and evolved her personal style, understanding that it was part of her brand. It was not just because she was on camera, but also because it was a form of self-expression, and reflected her confidence.

Walters’ publicist Cindi Berger said it well in the statement announcing Walters’ passing: “She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists, but for all women.”

The icon herself put it best to Chris Cuomo in 2014 when she retired from “The View”: “How do you say goodbye to something like 50 years in television?”

“How proud when I see all the young women who are making and reporting the news. If I did anything to help make that happen, that is my legacy. From the bottom of my heart, to all of you with whom I have worked and who have watched and been by my side, I can say: ‘Thank you.’ “

Thank you, Barbara Walters. Rest in peace.

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