The availability of George Gilder's book, Life After Television (Whittle Direct Books, The Larger Agenda Series), was described incorrectly in last Sunday's Book World. The book is available from the publisher or at Waldenbooks. (Published 6/17/90)


An Unauthorized Biography

By Jerry Oppenheimer

St. Martin's

368 pp. $19.95

HERE SHE IS . . . Barbara Walters. Journalism's first million-dollar baby. TV's first network anchorwoman. America's new paradigm -- a celebrity who became a celebrity by interviewing celebrities.

In fact, here is virtually everything you could want to know about Barbara Walters -- except how she regards her life and achievements. America's most famous interviewer wouldn't sit for interviews with author Jerry Oppenheimer. Maybe he should have begged, as she has with notable success on occasions crucial to her career. Then again, maybe she's wise to that trick.

No matter. He managed without her. He found more than 400 people who were willing to talk with him, and from them and from published sources he has pieced together an intriguing mosaic laced with revealing tidbits like these:

During her high school years, Barbara was forced by her mother to arrange dates for her retarded older sister, Jackie. Barbara complied by setting up double dates and never telling the young men about her sister's handicap until they arrived at the Walterses' home.

As a student at Sarah Lawrence College (and already leaving nothing to chance), she would repair to her dormitory roof and make sure her sun tan was perfectly even by tying her big toes together. (That way her legs couldn't turn out.)

Summoned to report on the air one day during her early career on the "Today" show, she suddenly realized her dress required a slip. She rushed down the hall, yanked a production assistant out of her chair, demanded to know if she was wearing a slip, shoved her into a closet and ordered: "Take it off! I'll give it back later."

There are also delightful reminders of how zany and amateurish television used to be: While she was working as a guest-getter for CBS's "Morning Show," the producer there loved to pull stunts like submerging the weather girl in a giant water tank and having her use a grease pencil to draw in highs on a map of the United States. (Yes, CBS's morning news was in trouble even then.)

And there are fascinating glimpses of feuds with her colleagues. The late Frank McGee, for example, was driven to distraction on the "Today" set by her habit of filling commercial break time by reading aloud thank-you notes she was writing, or intoning, "I'm going to be a wonderful person today . . . Wonderful people smile a lot . . . Wonderful people never gossip."

But most of all -- beyond the tantalizing fluff -- there is the portrait of a woman driven all her life to succeed. One observer says that even in her earliest NBC days, "She liked famous people and famous men . . . She was not interested in poverty. She was not interested in the social good. She was interested in power and money. She's never been hypocritical about that. She's never pretended otherwise. There were very few women who had the combination of stamina and drive that Barbara had. She worked all the time."

And she never missed a trick. When she won a regular on-air slot on "Today" in 1964, for example, she already had her own management team helping her with contracts, engagements and publicity. That team was so good that, after McGee's death in 1974, a surprised NBC was forced to make her the co-host of "Today." NBC brass had overlooked a seemingly innocent clause in her contract that guaranteed her that job if McGee left voluntarily or otherwise. She would later say she got the job "quite literally over Frank McGee's dead body."

So what made her what she is? Oppenheimer makes no judgments; he simply lays out his reportorial findings. (Don't look for elegance of style or insight here; this is meat-and-potatoes journalism with more than its share of occasional clinkers such as "Then {Hughes} Rudd ignited the flames a bit more.") And he sees two crucial factors: her sister, Jackie, and her father, Lou, one of America's great nightclub impresarios, the man who made the name Latin Quarter famous.

Oppenheimer shows us a sister extremely devoted to Jackie but also terribly embarrassed by her and always worried about having to be responsible for her. And he shows us a daughter profoundly influenced by an unconventional businessman whose boom-or-bust ways took her on a continuous roller-coaster ride between pampered privilege and fear of poverty, whose sure feel for showbiz never failed to help her but whose taste for showgirls never ceased to cause her family pain.

And what of the great debate over whether television's most powerful woman is a journalist or an entertainer? Here again, Oppenheimer simply presents the case for both sides, pointing out, among other things, that when Walters went to co-anchor the ABC Evening News for journalism's first million-dollar salary, half of it was paid by the news division and half by the entertainment division.

Still, no matter how balanced a presentation is, if you want to know where a writer stands, the best clue usually lies in how he ends a story. And Oppenheimer ends with Walters's third husband musing: "You know . . . Barbara could just as easily have been an actress. She's just so good at it."


A Commentary On America

By John Chancellor

Harper & Row

176 pp. $17.95

VETERAN television newsman John Chancellor has taken a look at America in the '90s, and he's plenty worried. Here Chancellor argues that Jimmy Carter was essentially right in his infamous "malaise" speech of 1979 when he mournfully lectured us that we weren't saving enough, weren't confident enough, consumed too much, worshiped self-indulgence all too often and were disrespectful to institutions.

In the intervening years, Chancellor says, things have gotten even worse: The Japanese are walloping us in autos and consumer electronics, and computers may be next as we continue to squander our technological lead; the federal deficit and the national debt have grown to suffocating proportions; the gap between rich and poor Americans has widened; and we've been spending shamefully disproportionate sums on our elderly while shorting our children. Essentially, he says, America is forfeiting its future.

How did we come to such an unpleasant pass? Chancellor's assessment: Vietnam, Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, the Iran hostage crisis -- all of which trampled America's confidence and enfeebled its leadership -- and Ronald Reagan, who decided it was more important for America to feel good than do good.

His solutions include an extended school year and a national service corps for young Americans, a government technology policy, public financing of congressional elections, higher taxes and curbs on entitlement programs such as Social Security. One of his most entertaining proposals is to abolish presidential primary elections and let the party bosses pick the candidates once again. There is an element of special pleading here -- given his four decades in television -- but he argues that such a move would restore the excitement to the national conventions and again make them the grand civics lessons they once were.

As a quick overview, Peril and Promise is serviceable -- but it's certainly not memorable and the thinking clearly breaks no new ground. And much of the first third is heavy slogging indeed -- one grueling set of statistics after another, no doubt assembled by a dynamo researcher, and apparently just slapped together. While Chancellor has had a deservedly distinguished career in television news, he never has been a writer in the class of, say, Eric Sevareid. And his writing here falls well short of his best. What is supposed to be simple, straightforward, broadcast-style prose sometimes comes dangerously close to simply being simple-minded. It's hard to know how much respect to have for a book filled with sentences like this: "Children are our future." And this, on the late shah of Iran: "He wore elevator shoes, but he believed he had a divine mission to modernize his country."

On second thought, it's not all that hard, is it?


By George Gilder

Whittle. 86 pp. $11.95

GEORGE GILDER can be a powerful pain in the buttonhole, grabbing you by the lapels and insisting that you listen to his consummately self-assured advice before it's too late. He's back at it in Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life, and it's hard to say whether it's thought-provoking or merely provoking.

In it Gilder argues (given his style, the operative verb probably should be "pronounces") that the age of television is over, and America had better snap to immediately before the Japanese steal yet another march on us.

The future, he says, is not high-definition television, because television itself is an "idiot box" as "passe' as last century's icebox." Rather, the future lies with the telecomputer, a personal computer adapted for video processing, connected by fiber-optic threads to other telecomputers all around the world, and able, like a telephone, to send as well as receive.

Such a system, he says, would radically change "the balance of power between the distributors and creators of culture," destroying the broadcast bottleneck that results from catering to the lowest common denominator.

For example: "The creator of a program on a specialized subject -- from fly-fishing to quantum physics -- will be able to reach with one video everyone in the United States, Europe and Asia who shares the interest. He will be able to command a large audience without worrying about mass appeal. The medium will change from a mass-produced and mass-consumed commodity to an endless feast of riches and specialties." The telecomputer owner (and not the few people controlling the airwaves today) will decide what he wants to see and when he want to see it.

There are, however, a host of obstacles, central among them, Gilder says, the regulatory shackles on the Baby Bell companies. Unless the local-service phone companies are free to bring fiber-optic cable into every home and to offer any service they can dream of, the telecomputer future belongs to the Japanese, he says. So, he trumpets, set the Bells free to invest in the real future. And forget television -- it's a dodo bird that doesn't know it's a goner.

He's annoyingly long on grand pronouncements and Gilder-knows-best assessments, maddeningly short on convincing evidence of how it all would work. And there are all sorts of unanswered questions. For starters: If the explosion of cable channels hasn't sparked a monster surge in creativity, why should we expect anything more of Gilder's telecomputer vision? And what of the entrepreneurs and financiers eager to make fortunes in the 21st century? Why aren't they investing in the future he sees. Are they piggishly shortsighted captives of vested interests, as he scolds, or thoughtfully aware of monumental obstacles he blithely ignores?

Still, you can't help thinking: Yes, George Gilder is too damn sure of himself, but what if he's right?

Part of the "Larger Agenda" series, the book is available from the publisher or at Waldenbooks.


The Inside Story

By Hank Whittemore

Little, Brown

319 pp. $19.95

YOU DON'T have to buy into George Gilder's vision of the fiber optic future to agree that tomorrow belongs to men and women who see, really see, the promise of technology. And Hank Whittemore provides an interesting case in point with his often entertaining description of the birth of Ted Turner's Cable News Network, now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The book has all the charm -- and all the problems -- of a giant bull session. Hopscotching from one set of recollections to another, Whittemore in effect drops us in on a post-deadline all-nighter at a favorite bar as decompressing CNN staffers reminisce about the good-old bad-old days.

There's the irresistible pleasure of listening to justly proud people telling a treasured war story one more time: Remember those 20-hour days at that sorry little station that became WTBS? Hell, the film would run out while those fools sat around playing banjos and smoking pot. Remember that ramshackle white house where we did the planning for the CNN startup? The thousands of termite wings -- no termites, just wings -- lifting and falling in the bathtub with each passing draft? Remember that toilet there with no seat -- 'cause it was being used to prop open a door? Remember that time we thought Ted had been killed in the Fastnet yachting race . . . ?

There's also, unfortunately, the problem of untold loose ends. Who was that person we just heard from -- Whittemore hasn't said what his job was, has he? Just how many millions did Ted Turner plow into the enterprise? What was his profit in the end? Just why, again, did he sell so much of his stake in CNN? That satellite snafu that threatened the very existence of CNN -- how did it finally get resolved?

The biggest problem of all, however, is Whittemore's shamefully lopsided presentation of Ted Turner, the Mouth of the South. Turner is undeniably a man of remarkable vision and courage, a riverboat gambler who recognized that through the technological wizardry of satellites and cable he could break the Big Three networks' stranglehold on television news. In 10 years, he has built CNN from literally nothing into one of the great success stories of American business. But if the man ever made a mistake, you wouldn't know it from this unblushing paean.

Still, CNN: The Inside Story is an eye-opening introduction to the enormous complexity of television news-gathering and delivery. And, for a news junkie, it can be a fun read. It's hard to resist the refreshing, crazy, upstart energy of CNN's early years, especially scenes like this one involving co-anchors Don Miller and Kathleen Sullivan, who had planned to close out a Christmas newscast with a chaste kiss under a sprig of mistletoe:

"Miller held up the tiny piece of mistletoe and they went through the routine. What Sullivan didn't know was that in Miller's other hand was a very large branch of mistletoe. After kissing her cheek, he swung the whole bough onto the anchor desk in front of her.

" 'Now, Kathleen,' he said, 'let's get down to business.' "

Can you imagine that exchange between Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer?

John Cotter is a senior editor of The Washington Post Magazine.