American television news pioneer Barbara Walters dies aged 93

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Barbara Walters, one of American television’s most prominent interviewers and the first woman to anchor an evening news broadcast, has died at 93.

Walters, who created the popular ABC women’s talk show The View in 1997, died at her home in New York, Robert Iger, chief executive of ABC’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co, said on Twitter. 

“Barbara was a true legend, a pioneer not just for women in journalism but for journalism itself,” Mr Iger’s statement on Twitter read.

“She was a one-of-a-kind reporter who landed many of the most important interviews of our time, from heads of state and leaders of regimes to the biggest celebrities and sports icons.

“I had the pleasure of calling Barbara a colleague for more than three decades, but more importantly, I was able to call her a dear friend. She will be missed by all of us at The Walt Disney Company, and we send our deepest condolences to her daughter, Jacqueline.”

The circumstances of her death were not given.

In a broadcast career spanning five decades, Walters interviewed an array of world leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Margaret Thatcher, Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, Russian presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and every US president and first lady since Richard and Pat Nixon.

“I never thought I’d have this kind of a life,” Walters said in a 2004 Chicago Tribune interview. 

“I’ve met everyone in the world. I’ve probably met more people, more heads of state, more important people, even almost than any president, because they’ve only had eight years.”

Walters’ critics said she too often asked softball questions and she was long skewered for a 1981 interview in which she asked Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she would like to be.

Walters pointed out that she only asked because Hepburn had first compared herself to a tree. She knew how to ask tough questions, too.

“I asked Yeltsin if he drank too much, and I asked Putin if he killed anybody,” Walters told the New York Times in 2013. Both answered no.

Former US President Richard Nixon during an interview with Barbara Walters

Credit: AP

Celebrity interviews also were an important part of Walters’ repertoire, and for 29 years she hosted a pre-Oscars interview program featuring Academy Award nominees. She also had an annual “most fascinating people” show but dropped it when she decided she was weary of celebrity interviews.

Walters was born in Boston. Her father, Lou Walters, owned the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she worked in public relations before joining NBC’s Today show as a writer and segment producer in 1961. She began getting air time with feature stories – such as a report on her one-day stint as a Playboy bunny – and became a regular on the program.

It was then that she began encountering resistance. Today show host Frank McGee resented her presence and tried to limit her role on the show.

After 13 years on Today, Walters was given an unprecedented $1 million annual salary to move to rival network ABC in 1976 and make history as the first woman co-anchor on a US evening newscast. Her unwilling partner, Harry Reasoner, made his disdain for Walters obvious even when they were on the air.

Barbara Walters is seen on the Today Show on June 3, 1976

Credit: AP

“These two men were really quite brutal to me and it was not pleasant,” Walters told the San Francisco Examiner. “For a long time, I couldn’t talk about that time without tears in my eyes. It was so awful to walk into that studio every day where no one would talk to me.”

After her unhappy run on the ABC Evening News ended in 1978, Walters established herself on the network’s prime-time news magazine show 20/20 and stayed with the program for 25 years. Being interviewed by Walters on 20/20 or on her numerous specials became a distinction – and guaranteed exposure – for her subjects.

In 1977, she scored a joint interview with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin before they made peace.

Walters became so prominent that her star quality sometimes overshadowed the people she was questioning. The New York Times called her “arguably America’s best-known television personality” but also observed that “what we remember most about a Barbara Walters interview is Barbara Walters.”

Barbara Walters exits the final episode of the Late Show with David Letterman in 2015

Credit: Shutterstock

Critics sometimes found her cloying, but she also could be blunt, such as in asking Martha Stewart, the lifestyle guru who went to prison in an insider-stock-trading case, “Martha, why do so many people hate you?”

In 1997, Walters started The View on ABC, a popular roundtable discussion show for women that was sometimes riven by disputes with her co-hosts Star Jones and Rosie O’Donnell. She stepped down in 2014 when she began limiting her television work to special occasions.

Walters’ three marriages – to businessman Robert Katz, theatrical producer Lee Guber and television executive Merv Adelson – ended in divorce. She also had high-profile boyfriends such as Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, and John Warner, who would later become a senator from Virginia.

Walters underwent heart surgery in 2010, which provided material for an ABC special in which she and former President Bill Clinton, actor Robin Williams and other high-profile heart surgery patients discussed their conditions.

She earned 12 Emmy awards, 11 of those while at ABC News, the network said.