Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Legacy of Barbara Walters (and some thoughts about 2022)

I've mentioned in a previous blog post that I enjoy playing word games; it's a way to keep my mind sharp. I've especially become fond of playing Wordle, which I do once a day (you can only play it once); and then, I compare my score with online friends of mine who are also playing it. I found it amusing that the final word of 2022 was "manly." Okay fine, the words are chosen randomly; but at around the same time, coincidentally, we learned that TV newswoman Barbara Walters had died. Like many women from the 50s and 60s, she spent her early career dealing with men who did not want her to move up, who tried to prevent her from speaking, who limited how many questions she could ask a guest and when she could ask them (one male anchor made a rule that she could ask a question only after he had asked the first three). I admit I was never a big fan of hers, but I admired her for persevering, and she opened the door for a lot of TV newswomen.

On the other hand, she also changed the definition of "news" in some ways. For many years, newsmen and newswomen were expected to do hard news only. It was serious. It was formal. It was grounded in facts. It was supposed to be objective. (Even interviews with news-makers were done in a serious and detached style. News-people back then rarely showed their feelings. When JFK was assassinated in 1963 and Walter Cronkite broke in to tell the audience what had just occurred, he briefly showed his sorrow. Briefly. And this was unusual for the times. Human, but unusual.) 

But even the most traditional newscasts, then and now, have often ended with a feature that's considered "soft news"-- human interest stories, segments intended to inspire you or tug at your heartstrings. These stories have always been designed to provide an emotional reaction-- like the kid who hasn't seen daddy in a year because daddy is serving overseas; and we see the kid get a big surprise when suddenly, daddy is back home again, and everyone is hugging and they've all got tears in their eyes-- you know the kinds of stories I'm talking about.  

What Barbara Walters was good at was interviews with big news-makers; she was especially good at eliciting emotions from her guests (and from the audience). She often asked the questions reporters in the past would never have asked, but which everyone really wanted to know. She knew how to keep viewers glued to the TV, eager to see who she would talk to next and what that person would say. Oprah Winfrey developed a similar style, but Barbara did it first. In fact, Barbara normalized it for news-people. And by doing so, she helped to blur the lines between hard news and soft news. She also helped to change the audience's expectations. As Alex Weprin of the Hollywood Reporter noted, "Walters took the newsworthy interview and turned it into an event: must-see TV."   

In our internet world, where almost anything can be on YouTube or Instagram or TikTok within minutes, TV no longer has a monopoly on the celebrity interview. But no matter where we access it, we're still fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous. That's why even legendary newsmen like Edward R. Murrow did some interviews with movie stars or big names in the news. But it wasn't what he was known for. Barbara Walters turned it into a brand, and a very lucrative one at that. Whether talking about current issues with her colleagues on "The View," or sitting with powerful men and women and letting us be the proverbial fly on the wall, she expanded what a news reporter does--and is allowed to do. And she influenced an entire generation of newsmen and women.  

As I write this, 2022 is about to end, and I will leave it to others to do in-depth retrospectives. What I remember is that we finally got back to teaching in person after the pandemic gave us a year and a half on Zoom; I celebrated my 75th birthday and I also celebrated 8 years of being cancer free. My husband's health was better than a year ago this time, but it still wasn't where either of us wanted it to be. But it was wonderful to celebrate Hanukkah together at home, for which both of us were grateful.  

I watched with sadness as the nation had one mass shooting after another; and while families were devastated, the public seemed to become almost numb to it. And I watched with concern as antisemitism, homophobia, and white nationalism were on the rise in numerous places all over the country, and all over the world. I remember too many extreme weather events and too few solutions. The political rhetoric often seemed more heated; too many folks, especially online, seemed ready to argue over even the slightest thing.

But I also saw many people reject the extremes, reject the hate, and reach out to "the other" with kindness and compassion. I saw many people eager to just do the right thing. For those who have read my blog posts and articles, or watched the webcasts I was in, or reached out to me on social media to say hello, I cannot thank you enough.  2022 had a lot of ups and downs. But we're still here, and now it's a new year. Let's make the most of it. Let's work together to make the world a kinder and more courteous place. From my house to yours, much love, much health, and much happiness in 2023.      

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Best Things in Life Are Free (Believe It Or Not)

I was walking to class the other day and stopped to say hi to one of my students. She looked like she'd been shopping, so I asked her what she bought. She told me it was Christmas presents, and then she admitted she felt really pressured because she has so many people to buy gifts for. She was worried that she wouldn't be able to afford to buy something for everyone on her list. She said she planned to work extra hours at her part-time job, so that she wouldn't have to disappoint anyone (I suggested that focusing on her studies was important too, but I don't think I convinced her).

It made me a little sad that someone who is no more than 18 and working hard to help with her tuition is feeling guilty that she might let someone down who was expecting a present. In fact, it makes me sad every year to watch some of my Christian friends obsessing over what to buy for whom, and worrying about how they will come up with the money for that special gift that [insert name of person] really wants. 

As a culture, we didn't always celebrate Christmas in such a commercialized way, but we certainly do in modern times. I've seen folks competing over which house has the most lights, or whose tree is the biggest and best decorated. I've seen all the commercials that equate being a good parent with buying your kids the most expensive toys. In fact, I've seen so many people worrying about "doing it right" that it seems to create more stress than joy. (I also note that Hanukkah, which used to be a simple little children's holiday and not even a major part of the Jewish calendar, has also been getting more and more commercialized with every passing year. I'm not fond of that trend either.)

As someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas, I'm fine about whatever my Christian friends do. But frankly, I wish so much of the holiday season weren't about the money and the gifts; and I wish there were a way to go back to a more simple means of observance. Perhaps I'm naive, but it seems to me the best gift we can give each other is love: welcoming folks who have nowhere to go for the holidays, bringing food to first responders and others who have to work on Christmas, Zooming or calling folks who are too far away to visit and letting them know you care, sharing a pleasant meal and good conversation with friends and family...  

And if you find yourself feeling stressed or guilty because your budget is limited, you shouldn't. The important thing is being there and letting people know they matter. I know that everyone enjoys getting presents; but my point is that love has no price tag. There are many people out there who need a kind word, and sometimes making someone feel a little less lonely is the best gift of all. So, as you prepare for whatever holiday you celebrate, remember that the best things in life (good health, good friends, the beauty around us) are all free. Don't take them for granted, and don't minimize them. And in this holiday season, that's what I wish for you: health, peace of mind, and the knowledge that you are loved. Happy holidays.