THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
The World According to Baba
Barbara Walters helped to usher in a new era of journalism.
It's been downhill ever since.
In journalism school in a previous century, there was an ironclad rule that the first-person pronouns "I" and "we" had no place in a news story. So deeply instilled was this taboo that to this day it is nearly impossible for this former student of the profession to read a story in a newspaper or magazine in which the reporter inserts himself into the narrative. If the article is an interview with a noted person, and the reporter begins, "We met at a midtown restaurant," one cannot bring oneself to read any further. If the article is about war refugees, and the reporter feels compelled to tell us, "I arrived at the camp in the middle of a raging storm," the page is turned with a cringe. As a practitioner of the writing craft, the use of the first person is assiduously avoided, even in an essay that is an unconcealed expression of opinion, and even if it leads to grammatically dubious sentences like this one.
Little did any of us realize that, as the wisdom of the elders was conscientiously imparted, the gold standard was being undermined and the seeds of journalism's ultimate demise were being sown before our very eyes. Foremost among those who would dismantle the system that bred them was Barbara Walters, whose star was rising at that very moment. Her recently announced retirement is therefore greeted in some quarters not with the laudatory and nostalgic treatment it has generally received in the fawning media, but with a palpable feeling of relief. Her very presence on television these last few decades has been a constant, gnawing reminder of one of the most egregious aspects of contemporary news reporting: the glorification of the celebrity journalist. Photos of her with many of her famous interview subjects have been printed and posted widely in the days since her announced withdrawal from the daily spotlight, as if they were proof positive of her influence and importance. There she is with Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, the Obamas. Notice that in every case, she made a point of posing with her subject, facing the camera together. The message behind each of these carefully choreographed images is clear: I the interviewer am the equal of my subject.
There were many reporters before Walters who felt themselves the equal, even the superior, of the people they were assigned to cover. Moreover, this is hardly the first era in which reporters were the stars of their own stories. The yellow journalism practiced at the turn of the 20th century made folk heroes out of quite a few reporters. It was partly in response to these excesses that stricter standards were introduced into journalism in the middle decades of the last century, when reporting enjoyed a brief period of respectability as a serious profession practiced by serious people.
Even that high-minded epoch produced its share of celebrity journalists. Long before there was Barbara, Edward R. Murrow was among the first famous news personalities of the television era and one of the most recognized faces in America. Like Walters, Murrow interviewed show-biz stars and famous politicians, but quite unlike her, he didn't make his name that way. No one ever forgot that he cut his teeth covering the Blitz in London, and later bravely exposed, in live broadcasts, the hypocrisy of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunt. Moreover, while he was perfectly at ease talking to heads of state, Murrow often seemed awkward on the air opposite a Hollywood star, as though he were performing a solemn duty for the sake of his network. Not in a million years could anyone imagine him on "The View".
Not so for Barbara. She, by stark contrast, often seemed out of her depth when talking to the high and mighty, but neatly in her element with the merely rich and famous. Her own claim to fame was just landing these interviews, and we mainly remember only that they happened. There was Barbara with Barbra Streisand, Barbara with John Wayne, Barbara with Michael Jackson. How many revelations of actual substance ever came out of any of her interviews, whether with world leaders or entertainers? Where was the news? The juxtaposition of segments featuring political heavyweights with box office heartthrobs undermined any seriousness of purpose that she purported to convey. How seriously were we supposed to take an interview with a president whose country was undergoing an existential crisis when it was bookended by interviews with a starlet and a rock singer? There was one other big difference between Murrow and Walters: the former's interviews were live and uncut, while the latter's were heavily edited. He was reporting news about people who mattered, while she was making a film in which her own stardom mattered at least as much as that of her guest. It was like the difference between Prime Minister's question time in the House of Commons, a weekly high-wire act, and the President's State of the Union address, a fully scripted ritual.
Compared to the know-nothings who now populate the netherworld of cable news, Walters does indeed look like a very serious journalist. But that's like saying that, in retrospect, the conservatives of Ronald Reagan's era look reasonable compared to today's Tea Party crowd. Like Reagan — another of Walters' famous subjects — whose often inflammatory and condescending rhetoric is at least partially responsible for the polarization of politics that followed him, her emergence as a media star in her own right blazed a trail for far more self-serving media hogs to follow. As she makes her way to the door, she is being credited with breaking the glass ceiling for women journalists, and to some extent this may be true. But how many young women who were inspired by Walters chose journalism in order to become hard-hitting investigative reporters or war correspondents? Maybe there are some, but if Walters' main legacy is a crop of good-looking news readers and perfectly coiffed shouting heads, then her struggle to reach the top would hardly have been worth the effort.
At 85, Walters is much closer to the generation of Cronkite, Brinkley and Reasoner than to almost any other journalist on the air today, and she worked alongside some of these giants of the industry in the early part of her career. But her own star rose somewhat later, at a time when the networks no longer felt the moral imperative of having highly respected news programs carry their banners — no matter the cost — and as the newsroom was gradually forced to cede ground to entertainment. She seized her moment, to her own good fortune and our detriment. Her departure from the scene will be welcomed by those who learned their trade in a different time, when fame was viewed with suspicion and celebrity with derision, when the news was sacrosanct and prime time programming was another universe entirely. Unfortunately, the exit of one individual who put her foot on the pedal of journalism's decline will not change anything. The damage is done, and there's no going back.
June 14, 2014
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