There will never be another Barbara Walters

The retiring veteran newswoman set the gold standard for female journalists

Topics: The View, Barbara Walters, Journalism, The Today Show, Feminism,

There will never be another Barbara WaltersBarbara Walters (Credit: AP/Stephen Chernin)
Salon’s Alex Pareene provides his very different view of Barbara Walters here.

Barbara Walters is ready for a different view — but not just yet. On Monday, the 83-year-old newswoman officially announced that she will retire in 2014.

I do not want to appear on another program or climb another mountain,” she explained in a weekend statement. “I want instead to sit on a sunny field and admire the very gifted women — and OK, some men too — who will be taking my place.” But Barbara Walters, if nobody’s managed to take your place yet, what makes you think it’ll happen now?

Walters, a woman who was being parodied on “Saturday Night Live” before a large segment of her current audience was even born, is one of the most durable – and polarizing — figures in television journalism. Her career is defined by the word “first.” She was the first female co-host of the “Today” show and the first female nightly news co-anchor. In 1976, she made worldwide news – and single-handedly reset America’s sense of a woman’s worth — by negotiating an unprecedented $1 million a year salary. And at 70, an age that would be utterly respectable for a television personality to pack it in, she co-created “The View,” providing viewers with a seemingly endless supply of backstage dramas, water-cooler moments, and, frequently, flashpoints for serious conversations about race, sexuality, class, crime, men and women.

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And because she was first, in nearly everything about women in television news, she has had an indelible influence on all those who’ve followed in her path, a path that is still undeniably harsher for women. One need only follow Katie Couric’s trajectory from beloved “perky” morning co-anchor to beleaguered evening news talking head to daytime talk show host to see the Walters script, played out again in a new generation. And one need look no further than the past year on the “Today” show – and the saga of a woman who was reportedly eased out because she displeased her male co-host – to see how far we have yet to go. Walters may have been first; what’s depressing is how bumpy the path she forged remains.

The Walters of today plays the television role of well-heeled matron, marveling at the fame of Honey Boo Boo and busting up spats on “The View.” She is at this point television’s rich old auntie, a little out of touch but still able to class up the place, Lucille Bluth with a microphone.

But what she leaves behind is a ferociously powerful, maddeningly unduplicated example. She’s a woman who’s out-earned many of her male counterparts and been unashamed and unapologetic about her aspirations. She’s never played soft and fuzzy to get ahead — she’s copped to affairs; she’s rarely deployed the sympathetic mom card. She’s never seemed to care about her relatability, and in the process, by the way, she’s nabbed some of the most sought-after stories and interviews of the past half-century.

You don’t like her? I seriously doubt she gives a toss. She’s here to do a job, and do it her way. And if television news is still frequently a hollow, sexist echo chamber, don’t blame Barbara. She showed everything that’s possible for a woman of brains and ambition in an industry that has little use for women with either. She was always the first — what’s astonishing is how even now, she still remains, in so many ways, the best.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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