Below, we argue mostly for the former. Barbara Walters was the very best kind of journalistic tree — empathetic, perceptive, prepared and relentless. At least, that’s how she came across when she wasn’t recording movie promos for the Ninja Turtles.
Making Oprah Winfrey cry isn’t exactly a journalistic coup. Crying (or more accurately, inducing her audience to cry) is arguably Winfrey’s raison d’etre. Still, the moment when an interview subject’s voice first cracks is a litmus test for any journalist. A bad reporter might become uncomfortable and change the subject. An unscrupulous one will be tempted to play the moment for cheap emotion.
Walters, an extremely good reporter, we contend, demonstrates her savvy in her 2010 interview with Winfrey, who teared up while talking about her friend, Gayle King. Note the textbook competence with which Walters guides Winfrey from the mundane toward the metaphysical in the excerpt below: from recalling how King helped her buy a car on her birthday, to distilling the meaning of friendship into 33 perfect words (at which point the tears begin ), and finally to Walters’s coup-de-grace: “Now tell us why you’re crying.”
Perspective | Barbara Walters, a ‘shining example of possibility’ for women in a man’s world
Winfrey: For my 42nd birthday we were on the way to the mall and I saw a Bentley parked in a car dealership, and I stopped and bought a Bentley. Because it was my 42nd birthday and I could do it. Gayle is in the car dealership trying to negotiate down the price of the Bentley! And when we left in the Bentley, she was more excited than I was.
Walters: A lot of women have close friends. Very few have friends as close as yours. Describe that friendship to me.
Winfrey: Whoa. Okay. Uh. [10-second pause.] She is the mother I never had. She is the sister everyone would want. She is the friend that everyone deserves. I don’t know a better person. [Raises hand and repeats:] I don’t know a better person.
Walters: Why is it making you cry?
Oprah: [Wiping eyes] Shoot, I’m going to cry here. It’s making me cry because I’m thinking about how much I probably never told her that. [To backstage, abruptly:] Tissue please!
A good interviewer knows it’s not her job to throw a lifeline when the subject starts flailing. Walters demonstrated the maxim perfectly in 1987, when she pressed the Scottish actor Sean Connery on his past comments advocating for slapping women under certain circumstances.
“Remember that?” Walters asked Connery with understated scorn. “Yeah, I didn’t love that.”
Startlingly, Connery doubled down, remarking that he hadn’t changed his opinion. Walters remained incredulous but unflappable. Mostly, she just repeated Connery’s assertions back to him or posed clipped follow-up questions to keep him talking. As the James Bond star spiraled into full-blown chauvinism (with hints of nascent sadomasochism), Walters simply sat back and marveled as a screen icon torched his legacy in the opposite chair.
The excerpt below begins after Walters sets Connery up for self-destruction with a deceptively simple question: “What would merit” a good slap?
Connery: Well, if you have tried everything else and — women are pretty good at this — they can’t leave it alone. They want to have the last word, and you give them the last word, but they’re not happy with the last word. They want to say it again and get into a really provocative situation. Then I think it’s absolutely right.
Walters: To give a good slap?
Connery: Yeah, absolutely.
Walters: What if she gives you a good slap back?
Connery: Well, then you get into another area. Then maybe she’s getting to like it and it becomes something else. I don’t know. No, no, seriously — I think it’s the last resort. He’s not going to do it because he wants to do it.
Walters: Wait until people see this interview. You’re going to get mail.
Years after Donald Trump’s presidency ended in a bloviating anti-constitutional farce, the art of confronting his self-aggrandizing spin remains an imperfect science in journalism schools. Walters, naturally, was ahead of the curve when she sat down with Trump in 1990 and pressed him on his latest book, “Surviving at the Top.”
Walters had no time for softballs. She tossed a heater out of the gate by alluding to Trump’s massive debt at the time, cheekily suggesting that a more appropriate book title may have been “Failing at the Top.”
Pulling from his now overly familiar playbook, Trump immediately slid into a subject change: attacking the “dishonest” press and predicting an economic apocalypse through arguments too incoherent to diagram. But Walters had come prepared to defend her chosen trade. She calmly informed Trump that she had spoken with “several” of his bankers before the interview, and then set about puncturing the future president’s many logical fallacies.
Walters: Being on the verge of bankruptcy, being bailed out by the banks, skating on thin ice and almost drowning — that’s a businessman to be admired?
Trump: You say “on the verge of bankruptcy,” Barbara, and you talk on the verge and you listen to what people are saying.
Walters: I talk to your bankers.
Trump: Well, that’s fine. And what did they say? Depending on which banker you’re talking to, what did they say? The deal I worked out is in the process, the deal I worked out is something that I think is good for everybody. The economy is down the tubes. Nobody knows how bad the economy is. I listen to the people on Wall Street talking about the possibility of a recession. We’re not in a recession – we’re in a depression. Now, when you’re in a depression, you have to sort of go with the punches. You have to go see your banks, you have to deal with people, you have to work things out. And there are a lot of people. Unfortunately, I’m the only one people write about — they don’t write about other people.
Walters: You have a little more debt than most people. You’re something like $3 billion in debt.
Trump: I also have a little more assets than most people. It’s sort of an interesting phenomenon. I have many friends – they are negotiating with their banks the same as I am, and I always say to them, “How come you never get any publicity?” You don’t end up on the front page of the various garbage tabloids.”
Walters: They weren’t on the front pages to begin with. [Gestures to the wall adorned with magazine covers featuring Trump’s face.] They don’t have 50 magazine covers behind them.
A chief responsibility for any interviewer is to serve as a conduit between the interviewee and the audience. When Walters spoke to the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” crew for ABC’s “10 Most Fascinating People” special in 2011, she preceded the segment by acknowledging the public outcry. “I have never heard more anger and dismay,” she said, “than when we announced that the people you’re about to see were on our list.”
In the excerpt below, Walters honored her audience’s skepticism by confronting sisters Kim, Khloé and Kourtney Kardashian and their mother, Kris Jenner about their lack of discernible skills. Walters introduced the notion of their ineptitude in such an endearingly blunt fashion that Kourtney and Khloé seemed almost eager to agree that their family did not, in fact, have any talent.
Walters: You are often described as famous for being famous. You don’t really act. You don’t sing. You don’t dance. You don’t have any — forgive me — any talent!
Khloé Kardashian: But we’re still entertaining people.
Kim Kardashian: I think it’s more of a challenge for you to go on a reality show and get people to fall in love with you for being you. So there is definitely a lot more pressure, I think, to be famous for being ourselves than to play a character.
Kourtney Kardashian: But I don’t think we disagree.
Khloé Kardashian: Like, none of us think we have talents. Like, none of us think we could sing or act.
Disarming the interviewee was another skill Walters exemplified under even the most uncomfortable of circumstances. There may be no more prominent example of this than her 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky, in which she lulled the former White House intern into self reflection just a few months after Lewinsky’s sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton became public and led to the first presidential impeachment in 130 years.
In that “20/20” interview, some 74 million Americans watched as Walters assaulted Lewinsky with a combo of straight-shot questions and timely levity. In the excerpt below, the host brings up a particularly lascivious rumor with such professed astonishment that Lewinsky can only laugh and tackle it head on.
Walters: You found yourself alone with Bill Clinton in the chief of staff’s office, and you lifted the back of your jacket and you showed the president of the United States your thong underwear. Where did you get the nerve? I mean, who does that?
Lewinsky: As I’m sure you know, and everyone who has ever been in any situation where there’s flirtation, it’s a dance. It’s sort of one person does something, and do you meet that person and raise the stakes? And that was how our flirtation relationship was progressing. I know that it sort of has been highlighted in everything this past year, and I’m not going to demonstrate for you, but if you take my word for it, it was a small, subtle, flirtatious gesture and that’s me.
Walters: Was it saying, “I’m available?”
Lewinsky: Well, I think he was saying, “I’m interested, too. I’ll play.”
Walters wasn’t perfect, of course. All trees eventually tilt. She was often accused of failing to insulate her journalism from the culture of celebrity that entered her. This newspaper panned her famous 2003 interview with Hillary Clinton as an “hour-long book plug masquerading as a news special,” for example.
Another example: during what must have been a particularly dry news cycle in November 1990, Walters and her production crew agreed to visit a movie studio in North Carolina. Once there, according to the Los Angeles Times, they set up shop in what Walters insisted to viewers was an “abandoned subway station under the streets of New York” and proceeded to “interview” four performers dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles about their franchise’s upcoming movie sequel, “The Secret of the Ooze.”
If you have $11.50 to spare, you can buy a copy of the March 1991 edition of TV Guide on eBay and read the whole thing. Better, just skim the largely monosyllabic and strangely racially obsessed dialogue below, keeping in mind that the interview aired months after it was recorded, on Oscar night, three weeks after a group of Los Angeles Police Department officers beat Rodney King half to death in one of the worst episodes of racial violence the country had yet seen.
Walters: And now, as promised, we take you to an abandoned subway station under the streets of New York, to the home of those movie heroes in a half-shell, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
[Donatello half-rises from a soiled couch and kisses Walters’s hand]
Walters: Charming! You’re everything I heard you were.
Michelangelo: Hey dudette. I love the dress.
Walters: Thank you so much. And Leonardo.
Leonardo: Yeah! It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Walters. Mind, body and spirit.
Walters: Yeah, thank you. He’s a little much isn’t he, sometimes?
Walters: Yo, Raphael. [Changing subject:] Not one of you was nominated for an Oscar. Why do you think that is?
Michelangelo: I think it’s prejudice. They don’t like people who are green.
Walters: Do you think it’s that you’re a little green and slimy and cold? Do you think they’re anti-turtle? [Offended crosstalk.]
Walters: Guys, your first movie was a huge success. Now you’ve got another one out and it looks as if that’s also going to be a big smash. Can I ask you one more question? Uh. Do you know who your parents were?
[What appears to be saline tear fluid begins to squirt through Donatello’s eye holes onto Walters’s blouse while she laughs or pretends to laugh hysterically.]
Donatello: Someone help me, I’m dehydrating