An intimate glimpse of the doyenne of broadcast journalism belonged to 400 students, faculty, staff, and friends of Sarah Lawrence College, packing Reisinger Concert Hall on a Friday evening in late January for a Q &A: Around the Round Table with Barbara Walters. One of the College’s most fascinating alumnae/i, Walters has generously and graciously been involved with the College: she returned to SLC earlier in the decade as 2001 Commencement Speaker; in 2004 her $1 million donation enabled the College’s new visual arts center to include a handsome gallery, and in 2006 she celebrated with her friend since their days as undergraduates, Joan Marks, in the naming of the Human Genetics graduate program.
Questions were posed to Walters by faculty members Rachel Cohen, writing, and Nicolaus Mills, literature, and member of the senior class, Jane Claire Quigley, and focused on Walters’ groundbreaking work in television, coming of age with the rise of the medium, forging new avenues for women, and becoming one of the country’s most respected and admired journalists. But questions near and dear to the College’s heart about how Sarah Lawrence helped prepare her for her formidable career were also on tap.
SLC ingrained in her far more than academic knowledge, she said, joking that if she had taken the right courses, she “could have made something of my life.” But it was the environment, friendships and relationships at SLC that helped to form her as a person.
“I felt when I was here I learned nothing,” Walters remarked. Thinking that she wanted to be an actress, she said that there were many courses she had missed. “I didn’t take a philosophy course, I didn’t take a language course, I didn’t take a science class. I could list all the things I didn’t take.” But while researching her book, Audition: A Memoir, she read her transcript, saw her reading list and what she had studied and was amazed, she said, by how much she did learn. What she realized, being at Sarah Lawrence in what was essentially a non-competitive environment, “was absolutely wonderful.”
Walters explained that she was very competitive, but the atmosphere at SLC allowed her freedom. “I wasn’t afraid of looking stupid and I wasn’t afraid of asking questions that really interested me,” she said. Walters noted that what makes a person’s character is what they accomplish and that she sees now how much SLC nourished her.
Addressing the students as a mentor would, she stressed the importance of being unafraid: “Start on the ground floor. Don’t be afraid to get your foot in the door. You’re very smart, smarter than almost anyone in this country, going to this school.”
The occasion to interview the consummate interviewer gave the audience insight into the personal thoughts behind the very public personality.
When asked how she succeeded in broadcast journalism, coming out of a women’s school at a time when journalism was a man’s world, she related a bit of her personal history. Walters had to work, she said, mentioning that her very successful father had lost everything and that she had a sister whom she needed to support. “There’s nothing like having to work to make you work your way up,” she said. Also, “Make yourself invaluable…. Find a way to make it work for you.” Walters said that when she went to ABC as a co-anchor, she was a failure. “So I started all over again, became a sort of general reporter… that’s when I did some of my best interviews.”
One of the most important things she learned at SLC was homework and research. “I know there are interviewers who don’t read the book. But I have to know more that the person being interviewed,” she said.
Walters stated that she feels that in a political interview, there’s a no “holds barred,” situation, with the journalist free to go anywhere. But she also said that she seeks to achieve a level of comfort with the interviewee. In an interview with Vladimir Putin, after realizing that a relationship had been established, she asked him, famously, if he was responsible for any assassinations. There are certainly times and matters where, “You don’t ask. Sometimes people go too far.”
She also thrives in more personal interviews, finding that the best way to establish a close connection is to ask someone about their childhood. Nothing creates the same connection as an early childhood story, she noted. Her most uncomfortable moment during an interview may have been, “Worrying how to ask Boris Yeltsin if he drinks too much.” Her most unresponsive guest was Warren Beatty, and she cited Yasir Arafat and Third World dictators as the most devious.
Responding to a question about the “new journalism,” Walters expressed concern about the ways in which many young people get their news: that in blogs and through media where news is delivered as entertainment, such as the Daily Show, people are not getting enough in-depth information; that there are too many opinions; and that it is too easy to digest. Walters, who said she watches the Daily Show, also reads the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and New York Post daily.
Barbara Walters didn’t have a trajectory for her career, which she characterized as one of hard work with successes and failures. And she encouraged the audience: “It’s not how you start but how you finish,” she said as she wrapped up her own interview. The reward of her life, she said, is that maybe, just maybe, she has made a difference in the lives of the people she has interviewed, or the people she has helped to educate. With obvious affection for her alma mater she concluded “It’s the spirit of the school, the sensitivity of the school, the nourishment of the school, that you will take with you the rest of your lives.”
—Frederic Richter ’10 and Judith Schwartzstein