by Barbara Walters
Alfred A. Knopf, 624 pages, $29.95
Journalists are, by necessity, chameleons, or, as Janet Malcolm famously put it, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Barbara Walters, the indefatigable interviewer of everyone from Anwar Sadat to Monica Lewinsky and the Menendez brothers, would likely quibble with Ms. Malcolm’s characterization of journalists, and indeed, after reading her autobiography, Audition, one gets the sense that if Ms. Walters ever noticed that she was, perhaps, manipulating her subjects, that she managed to successfully tamp down any feelings of cognitive dissonance.
One comes away from Ms. Walters’ 624-page tome (579 pages of text, plus acknowledgements and an index, and 32 pages of photographs) convinced that her great skill—greater even than her vaunted ability to convince heads of state and famous actors and convicted killers to sit down with her and, perhaps, shed a tear or two—was compartmentalization, and that this was really the only way that a woman starting her career in television in the 1950s could ever hope to get ahead. (Of course, there are also the requisite confessions, the most scandalous of which—her affair with former Massachusetts Senator Edward W. Brooke, the first black senator since Reconstruction—had already hit front pages before her book came out, thanks to a teaser for her May 6 appearance on Oprah.)
Indeed, there are few people—men or women—still working in television today who can say they were there at the beginning. Ms. Walters, by dint of turning down a job running an executive search firm in her 30s, is one of them; she got her start, as is well known by now, working at NBC in the 1950s, first behind the camera and then, on the Today show, in front of it. There are few television personalities who are as immediately recognizable, both by visage and voice, as she is.
As everybody knows, Ms. Walters has seen, and spoken to, more famous (and infamous) people over the course of her decades-long career than almost anyone else, and she often did it with little help from her male colleagues. Her interview subjects are a kind of mind-boggling chronicle of the star firmament of the worlds of politics, entertainment, media and crime. Of course, she will also be forever remembered for Gilda Radner’s hilarious impression of her on Saturday Night Live in the ’70s, when Ms. Radner lampooned her mispronounced R’s by calling her “Baba Wawa” and making light of her failed partnership behind the anchor’s desk with Harry Reasoner on ABC News. Today she’s known to a new generation of television watchers for her role as the wise, if a bit dotty, motherly figure on the daytime television chatterfest The View.
The autobiography of television’s reigning grand dame should be a big event for the viewing public. But Ms. Walters rehashes many stories that have been told, in the press and elsewhere, many times before. This time, she’s determined to set the record straight.
There’s the case of her departure from NBC in 1976, which turned especially nasty when, she says, NBC put out a press release saying it had decided not to renew her contract because she had become such a diva, when in fact it was she who had decided, just hours before, to jump to ABC (in large part, she claims, not because of the money, but because ABC offered her an hourlong evening news broadcast, which never came to pass). To this day she remains furious at NBC’s behavior; she writes, “Our mistake, [agent] Lee Stevens’s and mine, was not to send out our own release with the news that I was going to ABC. Somehow we thought NBC would be gracious enough to work out a joint release or at least discuss what should be said. We couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Then there’s her convoluted explanation of how she got involved in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal in 1987, having been manipulated by arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and Iranian businessman Manucher Ghorbanifar, who asked her to pass a message along to President Ronald Reagan regarding the American hostages in Lebanon. She did so without informing ABC, or indeed, anyone else. ABC found out months later—from Ms. Walters—because she was afraid her name would be leaked to the press. Shockingly, Roone Arledge and Dick Wald, who was then senior vice president of ABC News, continued to allow her to report the story, then proceeded to throw her under the bus when The Wall Street Journal published an article in March 1987 naming her in the affair. David Burke, who was in charge of policy and procedure at ABC News, publicly reprimanded her; Ms. Walters writes that she thinks that “ABC was wrong in reprimanding me, and I was hurt, especially because neither Roone nor Dick Wald defended me. They said it was David Burke’s territory and left the decision to him. From my point of view the news department certainly had no qualms about using the material I provided. I honestly believed that lives were at stake, which justified the exception in ABC’s news policy.”
In retrospect, Ms. Walters seems fortunate not to have lost her job. For someone who’d been in the business for over 30 years at this point—and seemed chronically insecure about being taken seriously as a journalist—the ethical lapse is, to put it mildly, mind-boggling. Not surprisingly, she was and is intent on deflecting the blame.
Perhaps it became a habit, a way of coping. In any case, Ms. Walter’s ability to keep separate the various, often competing parts of her life is almost eerie. She spends five pages on her first marriage (her second, to Lee Guber, lasted eight years; her third, to former Lorimar chief Merv Adelson, four), then abruptly announces its demise: She and hubby No. 1, Bob Katz, “had decided that our three-year marriage had died a natural death. … Oddly enough I also felt as if the marriage had never taken place. I didn’t miss anything about my relationship with Bob.” When her daughter Jackie, whom she adopted while married to Mr. Guber, becomes addicted to drugs as a teenager (she would spend three years in rehab), Ms. Walters writes, “All this time I was appearing on television, the picture of composure and tranquility. It was a nightmare.”
She does muster up some real emotion, however, when she discusses her mentally retarded older sister, Jackie, who died in 1985 of ovarian cancer, and her adopted daughter, also Jackie, who today runs a camp for troubled teenage girls in Maine. Both women would, over the years and for various reasons, cause Ms. Walters much heartache—and, she admits, much guilt. Yet one senses that if she had it to do all over again, Ms. Walters might not have done anything differently. “I was no longer second-guessing what I might have done or not done about my sister,” she writes. “That road has finally smoothed out, too.”
Doree Shafrir is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.