I knocked on the hotel room door. It opened and there stood Barbara Walters in her robe, without makeup. I remember thinking that she looked eerily similar to my Aunt Gladys. I had been sent to her room to deliver a message. I can’t remember what exactly the message was, but it clearly had to do with why she and I and others from ABC News were in Jerusalem. We were covering the historic visit of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, an event that was to open the door to peace between Israel and Egypt.
I was there as a producer for Steve Bell, the news anchor of Good Morning America. We were broadcasting live from Jerusalem for one of the biggest stories of the year 1977. Barbara had already been dispatched to Egypt to interview Sadat, then made her way to Israel, where a titanic contest was about to begin between her and Walter Cronkite. Which of them could nail down the first joint interview with Sadat and Israel’s leader Menachem Begin?
Barbara won that battle. She beat out Cronkite and sat down with the two leaders in an exclusive interview for ABC News. It was certainly not the first nor the last time she won a battle for the big “get,” the big interview of a news maker or celebrity. That same year, she went to Cuba for an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro. He was charmed by her, but that didn’t stop her from asking, as she always did, the tough questions that might make her subject squirm—her famous question to Barbra Streisand, “Why have you never had your nose fixed?” was a case in point.
Barbara had come to ABC News from NBC News where she had built her career first on the Today Show, then as a much-admired interviewer. For years at ABC News, I’d bump into her in the hallways or in an elevator. She really didn’t know me, but she was always pleasant. Then, in the 1990s, I became a senior producer on the news magazine program 20/20, which Barbara co-anchored with Hugh Downs. In fact, it was a re-pairing of the two, who had also been co-anchors at the Today Show. Over the years I was at 20/20, I got to know Barbara professionally and to some extent personally.
What I observed was an incredibly hard-working journalist. She had already made her mark in the television news industry as a premier interviewer, then at ABC News as the first co-anchor of an evening network newscast alongside Harry Reasoner. But it was still her big “gets” that cemented her place as a legend in our industry. Most network morning news or magazine shows employed producers who acted as “bookers.” Their job was to get interview subjects to come on the shows. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes it involved a lot of pleading and cajoling. But for the big, hard-to-get interviews, for which she competed fiercely with the likes of Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer and David Frost, Barbara was her own booker. She’d call, write notes, send flowers, whatever it took to get someone to sit down with her. CBS’s Bob Schieffer called her the “toughest competitor” he’d ever encountered.
It was her process for preparing for an interview that really stood out to me. She wrote all of her own questions, usually on 3×5 cards. Then she’d gather a group of us producers and writers in her office to go over the questions, reading them out loud and adding a reason she’d come up with each one. Then she solicited comments and any other questions we might have thought of. It was an exercise in collaboration that was fun to be a part of.
I also worked in the early 2000s with Barbara when she would occasionally fill in at Good Morning America, a flashback to her early morning Today stint at NBC News. At our 5 a.m. pre-show meetings, she was always ready to weigh in on the lineup of the show, the questions for guests, the writing of the scripts. She’d often change what had been written for her to fit her style.
Barbara juggled several balls for years. Still co-anchor of 20/20, she developed and co-anchored the daytime talk show The View, which was targeted to a female audience. This, plus her “specials,” exclusive interviews and her yearly pre-Oscar celebrity interviews, kept her going nonstop.
I developed a nice rapport with Barbara while at 20/20. She seemed to take a liking to me. When I was about to leave 20/20 for another assignment at ABC News, I found myself sitting at a table with her one night at a staff cocktail party. Near the end of the evening, she allowed that she had enjoyed working with me. I was thrilled. Here was an icon of television news giving me a compliment. Looking back, it was an honor to work with her, to see her skill and tenacity up close. I’ll miss her.
Stuart Schwartz was the longtime senior broadcast producer for ABC News.