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.      


  1. Great read Donna Halper :) thanks :) cheers!

  2. Your views are great food for thought and inspiring. Happy New Year to you, your family and friends.