Barbara Walters has endured while breaking ground for women and mixing journalism with entertainment

Can a legend really retire?

Barbara Walters will try. She’s announcing her retirement Monday morning — appropriately during May sweeps — on ABC’s “The View,” the all-female talkfest she co-founded in 1997. The 83-year-old has endured since 1961 in a career that’s spanned decades and in a business that values youth and beauty over age and talent. She’s persevered long after many of her male peers have quit, retired or, well, died.

In this July 28, 2010, photo, President Obama speaks to Barbara Walters… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP )

In this July 28, 2010, photo, President Obama speaks to Barbara Walters. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP )

Walters will leave the world of television journalism in a year; until then, she’ll continue to report and anchor for ABC News, appear on “The View” and serve as its executive producer, and anchor shows including a “20 Years of 10 Most Fascinating People” special in December, an Oscars special and a May career retrospective, according to a statement from ABC News.

She’ll be saying goodbye until we’re all probably sick of the farewell process, but then again, she deserves the accolades.

There’s no doubt Walters broke ground for women. We tend to forget what it was like in the early days of the television news business — before Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour and many others.

No woman had ever been co-host of a morning news show until Walter gained the position at the “Today” show after the death of host Frank McGee in 1974. No woman had ever co-anchored the evening news until she did in 1976 on ABC with Harry Reasoner, who looked downright pained to share the camera with Walters. (I remember the novelty — and novelty it was — to see a woman delivering the news. And it was so obvious that Reasoner didn’t enjoy sharing anchor duties.) Three years later she reunited with “Today’s” Hugh Downs to co-host ABC’s primetime newsmagazine show “20/20″. Then there was “The View”, the groundbreaking talk show created and co-hosted by Walters that featured intelligent women engaging in conversation about news, politics and controversial issues like gay marriage instead of recipes, hairstyles and fashion.

Her career in television began as a writer for the “Today show” in 1961. Since then, she’s interviewed every U.S. president and first lady since Richard and Pat Nixon, along with world leaders such as Fidel Castro, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem (together) and Russian president Vladimir Putin. She asked Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter if they slept in twin beds or together in a double bed, and she asked Putin if he’d ever ordered anyone killed.

She also became famous for her interviews with celebrities. Or perhaps infamous, taking plenty of flak for asking actress Katharine Hepburn what kind of a tree she would be. But she had the first interview with actor Christopher Reeve after a horseback riding accident left him paralyzed. And she had a two-hour exclusive with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Then there’s the poignant scene of Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze dancing with Walters in the last interview before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2009.

She’s crossed the line repeatedly between entertainment and journalism, interviewing celebrities while becoming one herself. Her memoir, published in 2008, bears the interesting title of “Audition: A Memoir.” I found the name to be an odd choice for a woman who’s interviewed most of the world’s leading newsmakers in the last half-century while also becoming an icon herself.

She explains the title in the book’s prologue: “It feels to me that my life has been one long audition — an attempt to make a difference and to be accepted.”

I think she’s passed the audition.

diana-reeseDiana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @diana reese.

 

 

 

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