First Woman News Anchor Barbara Walters Faces Ridicule, Resentment, “Terrible Barrage of Criticism” An Exclusive Interview

And co-anchor Harry Reasoner is not tickled to death to share his top job with anyone, let alone a woman

The Washington Star, May 9, 1975: “Harry and I were sitting on the set Wednesday night watching a piece of tape that had come in from one of the stations and there was a very pretty, chesty weathergirl, and I said, ‘Oh, Harry, there’s your next partner.’ And then the man on the program came on with his toupee and Harry said, ‘There’s yours.’ And I said, ‘I can always wear a sweater,’ and he said, ‘I can always get a toupee.’ This is the sort of thing nobody would ever expect of us. Maybe we should put it on the air.”

Barbara Walters is smiling and reasonably relaxed as she tells this story. A week ago, she couldn’t have been that lighthearted about a situation that has haunted her since she first came to ABC as co-anchor with Harry Reasoner, a man who clearly has not been tickled to death about sharing the limelight with her.

She is wearing a bright red dress which matches her mood — one of buoyant, renewed confidence and energy; one of hope where there had been despair. Two days before, it had been announced that Roone Arledge, president of ABC sports, would also be president of ABC news, and this was good news for her, long awaited. She is looking ahead to Roone’s “firmer hand and fresh direction” to rescue the evening news show from the “holding pattern” it’s been in for the past few months, and to revitalize the ABC news department.

A week before, in one of the two interviews with The Washington Star — the only interviews she has given in the six months since the press laid siege to her, shortly after she began as co-anchor — she was tense, obviously miserable. Burned by what current ABC news head William Sheehan calls “a great firestorm of publicity,” Walters has let the interview requests stack up: there are now “many hundreds” of them in a bulging file in ABC’s public relations office. Requests from all over the world, languishing because she lacks the time, but more to the point, she says, because more publicity is the last thing she needs.

Every day for the last seven months, Walters has had to face “this terrible barrage of criticism.” She says if she were to wake up one morning and go through the day without reading her name, “it would be a good day.”

Barbara Walters may not like being dumped on — very few people do — but she has kept her perspective. Through it all, she has never had the flu, not even a cold, marvels her secretary Judi Beck; she hasn’t missed a day’s work, has had only a one-week vacation, with her daughter Jacqueline, 8.

“I didn’t go off to Doctors’ Hospital for two weeks with the vapors. I didn’t fall apart from an attack of exhaustion,” Walters says with some pride. Even in her misery, she looks fresh, and she never loses for a moment the professionalism that is as much a part of her make-up as her lipstick.

Walters accounts partly for the obsessive interest in her as “the nature of the times. “Suddenly, in the past year, television has become this enormous area of gossip,” she reflects uneasily. “Television columns have become gossip columns, television is the Hollywood of the present and new young television critics are battling with each other to see who can have the most sensational story. I will do the smallest thing and literally, it will be on the front page of The New York Times. When there’s a vague possibility I may be going to Washington, it comes out as a front page story in a Chicago newspaper that I’m going to Washington as a last gasp.” She says she would never move here.

One place Walters is sure the publicity isn’t coming from is ABC. “We did not inaugurate that enormous intensity of publicity which I think, sadly, NBC helped. Whenever they had a press conference for their own shows, they gave ours, too,” Walters says, referring to the constant reminders the other networks make to the press about each other’s bad ratings. “When I had lunch with (NBC president of news) Dick Wald, I asked him about it and he kind of sheepishly apologized. I hear they’re still doing it.”

On the day of the first interview with The Star, Walters had brought to her office a pretty, fluffy yarn pillow her sister-in-law had made for her. Mary Hornickle, Walters’ assistant, pulled the pillow from a shopping bag and started to put in on top of one of the two pink pillows on the white ultra-suede sofa. Walters frowned, worrying that “somebody” might come in and see that pillow and think of her as frivolous. Finally, she shoved it underneath the pink pillow. “There, that isn’t as bad,” she said, and added, her voice a bit shrill, “Who says I’m not paranoiac.”

But her “paranoia” is based on real life experience. It had already been reported that her office is the size of a train station and furnished in pink, including her typewriter. Actually, it is small and cozy and feminine — but not frilly. There’s a soft easy chair to match the couch, and two chrome side chairs, upholstered in pink ultra-suede, a brown table and desk chair, an ordinary office typewriter. There are pictures of Jacqueline and one of her letters, casually framed. There is a large drawing of an empty NBC “Today” set, with just one sad-looking crewman looking on, and the words, “We Wish You All the Best.” It is covered with signatures.

That day, Hornickle, tidying up, comes up with two pictures of Reasoner and Walters together, and asks if she wants them hung up. “Take them out of here, hang them someplace else,” Walters says, waving them out of sight with her hand.

“I don’t mind the criticism, but I don’t think I’ve really had a chance. I think from the day I came over, I was under a tension and a glare,” Walters says briskly. “If something was wrong with the show, it was all her fault, she’s that million dollar baby and why didn’t she produce that miracle? The ratings didn’t skyrocket overnight and I was a ‘failure.’ I never had a chance. Now, with Roone coming, I feel we have a chance.”

Roone Arledge, Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters

Walters met Arledge a couple of months after she came to ABC and immediately recognized in him a man with “intelligence, integrity and style.” What worries her about him is that his problems are the same as hers; she identifies with him. “Roone is being described in exactly the same way I was, as show biz. I’m afraid he’ll bend over backward too far the other way, just as I did. People are expecting miracles from him, just as they did from me. And he is taking a great risk, leaving his comfortable position to come here. It will take time. I hope people will give us that time. I’m not sure that it won’t take the entire length of my contract (five years) to be №1

It is probably symptomatic of the climate at ABC that as news of Walters’ talking with The Star spread through the network offices, so did the rumor that “Barbara is doing a job on Harry” in these interviews. But on that burning issue–the reported hostility between herself and Harry Reasoner–she is discreetly silent. She talks about Reasoner’s ability, his dry sense of humor; she doesn’t think ABC news will stand or fall on how the two of them are perceived by the public. “I think we’re now examining many different directions. It is not a question of either one of us,” she says. And she adds, smiling again, “I’ve heard of everyone coming in from Geraldo Rivera to Howard Cossell.”

She has praise, too, for Bill Sheehan, whom she describes as “an extremely fine man. I’m terribly fond of him.” She says that, maybe because it’s been such a tough year, “I feel very good about myself. I feel good about how I work with these people, the production people, and the way they feel about me. That’s kept me going.” And recently, she’s been getting hundreds of letters from people reacting to her bad publicity, telling her how much they like her and, in three words, to “hang in there.”

“She’s a lady. She got a bum rap.” One of those production people was empathizing with the plight in which Barbara Walters found herself since deciding to leave the warmth and comfort of NBC’s morning “Today” show for the chilly heights of a co-anchor spot with Harry Reasoner on ABC’s evening news.

None of the staff had met Walters before she arrived (Walters, herself, didn’t know anyone at ABC, with the exception of one woman executive). They were expecting a demanding personality. Instead, “Barbara comes in with her indefatigability, with her integrity and her understanding of what is news, and she puts us all to shame. I like her. Hell, I’m not paid to like her.”

Walters didn’t make the move to ABC in a shower of love and kisses. Satirists and the press rained epithets and derision on her. A woman network anchor? Making a million dollars a year? Her speech was mocked: Gilda Radner of “NBC’s Saturday Night” socked her with a “Baba Wawa” routine as ruthless as it was insistent. “That hurts,” Walters says, wincing. “I don’t talk that way. I don’t say Hawy Weasoner.”

Phyllis Diller went for a cheap laugh, suggesting that Walters was planning to examine her own origins in a book she’d call “Woots.” Even the normally gentle “New Yorker” Magazine got into the act with a savage cartoon depicting Walters in a tap dancing outfit, leading a chorus line.

“There was much questioning of whether I even had the right to appear on an evening news program, as if it was some holy territory,” Walters said in the earlier interview. “How dare I? Was I even allowed? How did I have the nerve to want to do this? Years of writing and reporting and interviewing were suddenly dismissed. Everybody said, ‘It’s going to be show business, she’s going to sing and dance.’

“I’m a serious woman,” Walters said, her voice taut, her face tight with anguish. She could never have anticipated what was still to come. Rage from the press, and a daily stream of gossip, “a viciousness and glee beyond any kind of explanation,” she said, a “pain” she would never have knowingly wished for herself. An anchorman who, as one source puts it, “made no bones about not being happy to see her, he wouldn’t have been happy to see anyone.” Worse, she is taking all the blame from television critics because ABC is still №3 in the ratings. “After three weeks of my being on the air, everyone took my pulse. Time, Newsweek, most of the newspapers. We were up a point in the ratings and the share and everyone said she’s a flop, she didn’t conquer Cronkite.”

And “internal,” she says there’s been a lack of support, leadership and commitment to the news she had been promised. “We were beginning to wonder about ourselves.” She expected — a whole new production staff expected — a news program expanded to 45 minutes to make more room for the interviews with news sources, for two-way “debriefings” with correspondents which were part of the innovative first Walters-Reasoner broadcasts. In early November, according to William Sheehan, who will now work under Arledge, “We had such strong opposition from our affiliates we had to abandon the idea of 45 minutes.”

The avid and adverse publicity following every move Walters made, had a deleterious effect on the people at ABC, and has put a strain on the two anchors. “Before the onslaught of the criticism,” said one of the writers, “we were a very happy unit. Harry and Barbara got along fine.” Afterwards, he said, “there was a polarization within ABC, people — assignment editors and reporters — were divided into two camps, his camp and her camp.” Those who believed with Reasoner that the “old way,” was the best way. And those who felt that the interviews and the debriefings, the attempts to get behind the news, were a way of making the ABC newscast distinctive. But the Reasoner “camp” has prevailed.

What makes the situation “intolerable,” a source says, is that there has been next to no effort to bring Reasoner and Walters together with news management and production people to talk out the problems, to sort out the criticism and put it in perspective. He can think of only “one or two” such meetings in seven months.

Ask Walters some simple question about Reasoner and she says, tonelessly, “You’ll have to ask him. I don’t see him, his office is at the other end of the room.” Sheehan says, putting it mildly, “If I was to make a criticism of what we’re doing it’s that they aren’t relating to each other in the way we had hoped. Each has his own piece of the broadcast. I have not given up on the idea it will come to pass. It’s an ingredient we really haven’t had a chance to try yet. There is a quality that the two of them together could create that would be stronger than either one of them individually.”

Although close observers can point to moments of hostility between the two from their earliest broadcasts, “this man believes it wasn’t readily apparent to the public until election night when there was an acrimonious exchange on the air.” And on inauguration day, during the long hours of coverage, Reasoner “put-down” one Walters comment after another.

“That cut it for me,” the man says, shaking his head. Although he is complimentary about Reasoner’s skills, he finds this on-air attack “intolerable” for Walters. Even with the arrival of Arledge, this man is “skeptical” of the possibilities for repairing any of the damages. “Our product is getting better and better, but it’s a matter of perception, of how people think of us.” And if that isn’t working, he says, “it doesn’t matter how good out product is.”

Barbara Walters recalled the beginnings. “Before I even came here there were rumors that ABC was looking for an anchor and my name was mentioned. And for reasons I don’t know — at the time I didn’t know Harry — Harry said he would quit. But he didn’t quit. ABC came back and talked to him and — it’s a matter of record — offered him more money.”

Reasoner is making around $500,000 a year for his anchoring work, the same amount, “to the dollar,” Walters says, she is making for that particular job. The rest of her million dollars a year is for innumerable news specials and interviews, for which other anchors and correspondents get paid on a piece basis. She has done eight in seven months, and is working on two more: a “Barbara Walters Hour,” in which she interviews Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Redd Fox and their wives, and “an interview with an important world figure.”

These specials, Reasoner’s trip to Europe with President Carter and Walters’ trip to London to cover Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, will keep the co-anchors separate for at least three weeks. It may be a good, healthy respite for both of them.

Walters had only met Reasoner once before, years ago at a National Democratic convention in Atlantic City when she was still a reporter for NBC. “We took a walk along the Boardwalk and laughed and joked and I thought he had a wonderful sense of humor.”

Why did Barbara Walters want to be an anchor in the first place? She didn’t. “I didn’t start out wanting to be an anchorwoman. I never came to NBC or ABC and said, make me anchorwoman. It all came out as if I pounded people over the head to make me an anchorwoman. I didn’t think that being an anchorwoman was all the exciting, if all I was going to do was be on the air and read. I always thought I’d be on the ‘Today” show for the rest of my life. I loved being on ‘Today.” We never had to worry about ratings; morning shows have traditionally low ratings. I loved working with Jim Hartz and Gene Shalit. I was happy. I thought, I’ll stay here forever and there was no other opening for me.”

Until ABC approached, dangling promises of an expanded news show that would give her a chance to put her own imprint on the anchor job, a chance to “humanize” the news. And, even more important to Walters, a chance to occasionally host “Issues and Answers” and to do prime time interviews, something she didn’t get to do at NBC.

“I always thought it was possible to do the same kinds of interviews at night that I did on the ‘Today’ show but NBC always said no. Now, of course, everybody’s doing them, I don’t mean I originated them, but the time has come.”

“The anchor was just part of it, but then it turned out to be the thing that caught everybody’s attention because I was the first.”

And if Barbara Walters could have anticipated the “unprecedented hoopla” and the setbacks that were to accompany her move from NBC to ABC, would she do it all over again? She is asked that question at the end of the first interview, before Roone Arledge’s promotion had been finally announced, and she is at low ebb as she answers with a phantom smile, “”Would I knowingly give myself all this pain?”

But the other day was red dress day, was red letter day, with cautious hopes and winging confidence. And, indeed on this day, the fluffy yarn pillow was on top of the pink ultra-suede pillow — for all to see.

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.