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Barbara Walters, pioneering television journalist, has died aged 93

Barbara Walters, pioneering television journalist, has died aged 93

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Barbara Walters, the fearless interviewer, anchor and program host who blazed a trail as the first woman to become a television news superstar during a career remarkable for its length and diversity, has died. She was 93.

ABC broke into its broadcast to announce Walters’ death on air Friday night.

“She lived her life with no regrets. She was a pioneer not only for women journalists, but for all women,” her publicist Cindy Berger said in a statement, adding that Walters died peacefully at her home in New York.

An ABC spokesman had no immediate comment Friday night, other than to share a statement from Bob Iger, CEO of ABC’s parent company The Walt Disney Company.

“Barbara was a true legend, a pioneer not only for women in journalism, but for journalism itself,” Iger said.

During nearly four decades at ABC, and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with rulers, royalty and entertainers earned her a celebrity status that rivaled theirs, while also putting her at the forefront of a trend she made stars from the TV reporters.

At the end of her career, she gave infotainment a new twist with ‘The View’, ABC weekday kaffee klatsch live with an all-female panel for which every topic was on the table and which welcomed guests ranging from world leaders to teen idols. With this side venture and an unexpected hit, Walters considers The View the “dessert” of her career.

Walters made headlines in 1976 as the network’s first female news anchor, with an unprecedented gasp-inducing salary of $1 million. Her drive was legendary as she competed—not only with rival networks but with colleagues from her own network—for every big “hit” in a world clogged with more and more interviewers, including female journalists, following in her wake .

“I never expected this!” Walters said in 2004, taking stock of her success. “I always thought I would be a writer for television. I never even thought I would be in front of a camera.”

But she was a natural in front of the camera, especially when peppering celebrities with searing questions.

“I’m not afraid when I interview, I have no fear!” Walters told The Associated Press in 2008.

In a voice that never lost a trace of her native Boston accent or its substitution of Rs for Ws, Walters asked gruff and sometimes giddy questions, often sweetened with a quiet, respectful delivery.

“Off screen, do you like yourself?” she once asked actor John Wayne, while Lady Bird Johnson was asked if she was jealous of her late husband’s reputation as a ladies’ man.

In May 2014, she taped her final episode of “The View” amid much ceremony and a gathering of dozens of luminaries to end a five-decade career in television (although she continued to make occasional television appearances ). During a commercial break, a crowd of TV newswomen for whom she had paved the way — including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and Connie Chung — posed with her for a group portrait.

“I have to remember that on the bad days,” Walters said quietly, “because it’s the best.”

Her career began without such signs of greatness.

Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1943 and eventually landed a “temporary” behind-the-scenes job at “Today” in 1961.

Shortly thereafter, what was believed to be a slot for a token woman among the team’s eight writers opened up. Walters got the job and began making occasional on-air appearances with offbeat stories like “A Day in the Life of a Nun” or the Tribulations of a Playboy Bunny. For the latter, she donned bunny ears and high heels to work at the Playboy Club.

As she appeared more often, she was spared the title of “Today’s Girl” that was attached to her token female predecessors. But she had to pay her dues, sometimes sprinting across the Today set between interviews to do dog food commercials.

She did the first interview with Rose Kennedy after the assassination of her son Robert, as well as Princess Grace of Monaco, President Richard Nixon and many others. She traveled to India with Jacqueline Kennedy, to China with Nixon, and to Iran to cover the Shah’s gala party. But it faced a setback in 1971 with the arrival of a new host, Frank McGee. Although they could share a desk, he insisted she wait for him to ask three questions before opening her mouth during joint interviews with “influential people.”

Although she achieved celebrity status in her own right, the celebrity world was familiar to her even as a little girl. Her father was an English-born booking agent who turned an old Boston church into a nightclub. Lou Walters opened other clubs in Miami and New York, and the young Barbara spent her after-work hours with regulars such as Joseph Kennedy and Howard Hughes.

Those were the good times. But her father made and lost fortunes in a dizzying cycle that taught her that success is always at risk of being snatched away and can neither be trusted nor enjoyed.

Sensing greater freedom and opportunities awaiting her outside the studio, she hit the road and produced more exclusive interviews for the program, including Nixon Chief of Staff HR Haldeman.

By 1976, she was co-hosting Today and earning $700,000 a year. But when ABC signed her to a five-year, $5 million contract, she was dubbed the “million dollar baby.”

The reports failed to note that her job duties would be split between the network’s entertainment division and ABC News, which was then mired in third place. Meanwhile, Harry Reasoner, her veteran ABC News co-anchor, is said to resent her salary and celebrity orientation.

It wasn’t just the rocky relationship with her co-host that brought problems for Walters.

Comedian Gilda Radner satirized her on the new “Saturday Night Live” as a rotastist commentator named “Baba Wawa.” And after her interview with President-elect Jimmy Carter, in which Walters told Carter to “be wise with us,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer publicly derided her as “the first female pope to bless a new cardinal.”

It was a period that seemed to mark the end of everything she had worked for, she later recalled.

“I thought it was over, ‘How stupid of me to leave NBC!’

But salvation arrived in the form of a new boss, ABC News president Roone Arledge, who moved her from the co-anchor slot to special projects for ABC News. Meanwhile, she found success with her quarterly prime-time interview specials. She became a frequent contributor to the ABC newsmagazine “20/20” and in 1984 became co-anchor. A perennial favorite was her review of the year’s “10 Most Fascinating People.”

By 2004, when she retired from “20/20,” she had recorded more than 700 interviews, ranging from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Moammar Gaddafi to Michael Jackson, Eric and Lyle Menendez and Elton John. Her two-hour conversation with Monica Lewinsky in 1999, about the former White House intern’s memoir about her affair with President Bill Clinton, drew more than 70 million viewers and is among the highest-rated television interviews in history.

A particular favorite of Walters was Katharine Hepburn, although a 1981 conversation led to one of her most derided questions: “What tree are you?”

Walters would later argue that the question was perfectly reasonable in the context of their conversation. Hepburn likened herself to a tree, prompting Walters to ask what kind of tree she was (“Oak” was the answer). Walters was guilty of being “horribly sentimental” at times and was known to make her subjects cry, with Oprah Winfrey and Ringo Starr being among the more famous shedders.

But her work also received high praise. She won a Peabody Award for her interview with Christopher Reeve shortly after the 1995 riding accident that left him paralyzed.

Walters wrote a bestselling 2008 memoir, Audition, which surprised readers by revealing her “long and difficult affair” in the 1970s with married U.S. Senator Edward Brooke.

Walters’ self-disclosure reached another milestone in May 2010, when she announced on “The View” that days later she would undergo heart surgery. She would tout her successful operation — and those of other notables, including Clinton and David Letterman — in a primetime special.

Walters’ first marriage to businessman Bob Katz was annulled after a year. Her 1963 marriage to theater owner Lee Guber, from whom she adopted a daughter, ended in divorce after 13 years. Her five-year marriage to producer Merv Adelson ended in divorce in 1990.

Walters is survived by her daughter, Jacqueline Danforth.

“I hope I will be remembered as a good and brave journalist. I hope that some of my interviews have not made history, but witnessed history, even though I know that title has been used,” she told the AP after her departure from “The View.” “I think when I look at what I’ve done, I have a great sense of accomplishment. I don’t want to sound proud and arrogant, but I think I’ve just had a wonderful career and I’m so excited about it.”

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