What would Barbara Walters do? That has been my mantra for nearly 40 years.
Since I was a teenager in the '70s, I idolized the woman. There were times I wanted to be her.
After watching Walters on television in 1972 accompanying President Nixon on his trip to China, I knew I wanted to be a journalist.
I read every book and magazine article written about her and wrote college reports about her.
But it was in 1976 when she received the unprecedented $1 million annual salary to co-anchor the ABC evening news with Harry Reasoner that I truly aligned myself with Walters. It was smack in the middle of the women's rights movement, and she was a real lady leader.
When Reasoner and other men spoke condescendingly about her salary and qualifications, Walters maintained her public dignity. She just kept working harder. “You go, girl” would be what we’d say to her today.
I remember feeling personally proud in 1977 when Walters arranged and conducted the first joint interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. I watched on television and cheered for her from my college apartment.
Her tenacity for securing difficult interviews and her skill at asking probing and interesting questions propelled her career; she was a tough and likeable reporter simultaneously.
A Role Model for Our Times
She overcame discrimination and throughout my career, whenever I was subjected to workplace discrimination — no matter how subtle — I would ask myself: What would Barbara Walters do?
A couple of significant instances are etched in my brain.
As a cub newspaper reporter, assigned to the police beat in 1978, a chauvinist lieutenant wouldn’t let me in the squad room with the male reporter from a rival paper. “Women are distracting,” he said.
When I wanted a professional title equal to the men I was working with on my first executive job — a political appointment — in 1983, I was told, “You don’t supervise enough people for that title.”
At times like those, when I'd ask myself, What Would Barbara Walters Do?, I'd answer:
- Do your homework. Know the facts of the case.
- Suit up. Look the part. Be professional in dress, style and demeanor.
- Get to know the highest ranking person in the situation, talk to him (it was always a him) with compassion and grace and then do my “ask” when I could tell he trusted me.
- Be tenacious.
So, I did a personality piece on the police chief who allowed me access to the squad room. I explained to my executive boss that denying me the title was discrimination and that I was sure an elected official such as he wouldn’t want to be a party to such actions.
Both tactics worked perfectly.
A Trailblazing Mentor From Afar
I've never met Barbara Walters, so I have no idea if she would act like I have imagined. But that’s my version, and it’s been a terrific guide.
As she readies to retire in May at 84, having founded the highly successful ABC talk show The View 18 years ago, I can’t help but revere her in writing.
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She’s been my trailblazing, unknowing mentor.
I haven’t achieved the professional or monetary success she has, but that’s partly because of personal and conscious decisions I made along life’s path. Even so, Walters has been a guiding light for my entire life.
I’m nearly 60 now (still a kid by Walters' standards) and am embarking on a new career in mobile solutions.
It’s been scary. Everyone is younger than me.
The subtle discrimination has changed, coming not from males as much as from the young these days.
But that’s OK, I know what to do. I stand my ground. I suit up and don my reporter’s personality to learn more about the new technology.
And whenever it gets a little rough, I ask myself, “What would Barbara Walters do?”
And inner strength is revealed.