Barbara Walters, Trailblazing Broadcast Journalist, Dies at 93

She made history on ‘Today’ and as the first $1 million a year news anchor, becoming a world-famous interviewer and cultural phenomenon in the process.

Barbara Walters, the glass ceiling-shattering newswoman whose intimate television interviews with celebrities and world figures blended show business and journalism and induced many a tear, has died. She was 93.

Walters, the first female co-host of the Today show, the first evening news anchorwoman in broadcast history and a co-creator and co-host of The View, died Friday evening at her home in New York, ABC News announced.

Walters revealed in May 2013 that she would retire from journalism upon the conclusion of The View season in 2014. “I thought it was better to go when people are saying, ‘Why is she leaving?’ than, ‘Thank goodness she’s leaving!’” she said.

Yet Walters soldiered on with exclusive interviews, like one with Peter Rodger, the father of Elliot Rodger, the UC Santa Barbara student who killed seven people in May 2014.

Walters also was known for co-hosting the ABC news magazine program 20/20 with her former Today teammate Hugh Downs and for her annual 10 Most Fascinating People and Oscar specials that ran on the network for decades.

Walters made history on Oct. 4, 1976, when, after ending a 13-year stint on Today, she joined Harry Reasoner as co-anchor of the ratings-challenged ABC Evening News. The old-school news veteran was not pleased.

“We were a great failure,” she said. “He didn’t want a partner. It wasn’t that he disliked me. I was forced on him.” Incredibly, she did not meet with Reasoner before taking the job.

The terms of her deal, which she signed with ABC Entertainment president Fred Silverman, were lavish and unprecedented. Her five-year, $5 million contract, which included her hosting four one-hour primetime specials each year, made her the highest-paid newscaster in history. CBS’ Walter Cronkite was earning about $400,000 at the time.

Half of Walters’ salary came out of the entertainment division’s budget, lending credence to the criticism that ABC News had tilted toward show business. When he heard what Walters was getting paid, then-CBS News president Richard Salant asked, “Is Barbara a journalist, or is she Cher?”

“I got terrible press,” Walters, who maintained that she was making more money at NBC at the time, said in a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television. “It was like I was some chorus girl who had come out of Radio City. There were terrible cartoons of me. I didn’t come from the Associated Press or United Press. I was raised in television, and I was a woman. And here was this wonderful, grizzled Harry Reasoner.”

Said former ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, “It was a dysfunctional duo, with a man sitting there looking down his nose at a woman.”

At the low point of her career, she said she was encouraged by letters she received from female viewers as well as by a telegram from John Wayne that read, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Walters and Reasoner remained on the air until July 7, 1978, when Roone Arledge, who had recently added news to his sports portfolio at ABC, replaced the pair with a three-anchor format headed by London-based Peter Jennings.

“I began then to work my way back,” she said.

The fiercely competitive, always impeccably dressed Walters soon became the epitome of the TV-journalist-as-celebrity, overcoming a speech impediment — which made her the object of a “Baba Wawa” parody by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live — to sustain a remarkable career with a series of landmark “gets.”

The first Barbara Walters Special aired in 1976 when she interviewed President-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, for the first half of the show. For the second half, she chatted with Barbra Streisand and her boyfriend at the time, producer Jon Peters.

Her September 1995 interview with paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve — his first since his devastating spinal-cord injury — was one of 20/20’s highest-rated programs. “For years to millions of moviegoers, Christopher Reeve was Superman. I think he’s more Superman now,” she said as she introduced the piece, for which she won a Peabody Award.

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