By Eric Deggans
Sometimes, I like causing trouble. So whenever people ask me who is the most influential TV journalist of the modern age, I never say Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite.
I always say Barbara Walters.
That’s because she pioneered the mixture of emotion and news, serious and celebrity, personal and political that drives every modern TV news program, from the today show and 20/20 to Nancy Grace, Access Hollywood and beyond.
On my Sunday Floridian page devoted to blog-like items about media — It’s also called The Feed — I presented a necessarily shortened interview with the 78-year-old master. But when I called a swanky hotel in Miami to ask about her roots in journalism (the excuse was promoting her new memoir, Audition), I got a lot more than three one-paragraph answers. And I even got a compliment for my questions from a woman once called the mistress of the impertinent question.
BARBARA WALTERS talks: “I did the first live interview with Richard Nixon – I started out by asking him foreign policy questions because he was very knowledgeable. Then I was trying to humanize him. So I thought I’ll give him a chance to get some empathy. I asked how he got through the whole experience (of Watergate). He said to me, ‘Get serious Barbara.’ I said “I am serious, Mr. President.'”
Specifically, I wanted to know about the celebrity interview special that started it all; a sit down with Barbra Streisand, her then boyfriend, hairdresser Jon Peters, and President-elect jimmy Carter and his wife.
“Professionally, they saved my career,” she said. “When I came to ABC I was such a failure as the first female anchor of a network news anchor. I was paired with Harry Reasoner, who just didn’t want a partner. Part of of that contract was to do four specials a year. I was going to combine, the way newsmagazines did, a political person and a celebrity. The first one had Barbra Streisand and her then boyfriend Jon Peters, and President elect and Mrs. Jimmy Carter. And it was a huge success. When we did these things, we saw that the ratings went up for the celebrity and down for the political person. So more and more, these interviews became celebrity specials. They were the forerunner of the newsmagazine shows. Our specials worked over the years, and ours were the only ones that did. Other people tried them, including Oprah, but they never worked.”
Barbara Walters ‘The View’ Website • Order Audition: A Memoir by Barbara Walters
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Possibly the most critical guy at the St. Petersburg Times, Eric Deggans has served as music, media and TV critic at various times over 10 years. Read more of his work at TampaBay.com!