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How Barbara Walters Went From ‘Today Girl’ to Pioneering Media Star

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Long before she became the first woman to co-anchor a network newscast and the foremost prime-time interviewer of heads of state and Hollywood stars, Barbara Walters understood the power of television.

When she was a teenager in New York City, she saw that TV provided an escape for her cognitively disabled sister, who spent hours watching “I Love Lucy” and “Texaco Star Theater.” And it wasn’t lost on her how her father’s nightclub business fell off in part because of television’s ability to keep people in their living rooms at night, rather than out on the town.

Ms. Walters, who died on Friday at age 93, had spent more than five decades in front of the camera and become a titan of the medium: lauded for the subjects she scored, criticized for her coziness with them, even memed for how she presented herself.

But when she started out, the industry was against her. Men did the hiring. Men decided what went on the air. Men delivered the news.

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She wrote in her 2008 memoir, “Audition,” that it was her legs, not her skills, that persuaded the head of a small Manhattan advertising agency to give her a job soon after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1951. She quit when her boss “became overly amorous,” as she described it. She went on to find low-level jobs at NBC and CBS.

In 1961, she joined NBC’s “Today” show as a writer, researcher and occasional correspondent. When she went before the camera, it was in the guise of what was then called a “Today Girl.” She reported on Paris Fashion Week and dressed up in a Playboy Bunny costume — but soon began seeking out grittier topics and more independence.

Gloria Steinem took notice of Ms. Walters in a 1965 article for The New York Times (headline: “Nylons in the Newsroom”) on the rise of women in television news, singling her out among a group of pioneering correspondents and producers that also included Nancy Dickerson and Pauline Frederick.

“Miss Walters not only appears on camera but writes her own scripts, and researches, directs and edits her own filmed reports,” Ms. Steinem wrote.

Ms. Walters, wearing a beige dress with a red collar, sitting at a desk.
Ms. Walters on “The Today Show” in 1969.NBC

In 1971, she took over the NBC talk show “For Women Only.” She changed the name to “Not for Women Only” and turned it into a syndicated success that prefigured later daytime discussion shows hosted by Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. The next year she was among the cadre of TV correspondents, including Dan Rather of CBS and Ted Koppel of ABC, accompanying President Richard M. Nixon on his trip to China.

At the same time, she was working, unofficially, as the “Today” show’s first female co-host. The network did not allow her to direct questions at on-set guests until her male co-host had asked three of his own, a restriction she bypassed by seeking out interviews away from the show’s studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The constraints were lifted in 1974, when NBC formally gave her the title of co-host.

“People may have loved her or hated her, but they sure as hell watched her,” Stuart Schulberg, a “Today” producer, told The Times in 1977.

ABC lured her from NBC in 1976, making her the first female co-anchor of a network evening news program. She was paid a $1 million annual salary, more than any other newscaster at the time. But her stint on ABC Evening News was “a total flop,” she later said.

Her counterpart, Harry Reasoner, “was really awful to me on and off the air,” she told Vogue, though he later said he never disliked her personally. “The studio was cold and I was frozen out,” she once said, describing how she had to rely on her knowledge of the New York Yankees to convince the stagehands to talk to her. She described being so visibly miserable that the actor John Wayne, not known as a staunch feminist, sent her a telegram to cheer her up.

In 1979, Ms. Walters joined the prime-time ABC News magazine “20/20,” where she stayed for 25 years and developed a reputation for persuading public figures to speak to her before anyone else. In 1995, she was the first to interview the actor Christopher Reeve after he was paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident. In 1999, her interview with Monica Lewinsky, another first, drew about 50 million viewers.

Ms. Walters also helped create the influential ABC daytime talk show “The View” in 1997, overseeing what The Times called “TV’s most dysfunctional family” with a panel of women that has included Star Jones, Meredith Vieira, Lisa Ling, Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell. She was 67 when it began.

Her career became a guidepost to several generations of journalists, many of them women, including Jane Pauley, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. Norah O’Donnell, the “CBS Evening News” and “60 Minutes” journalist, said she used to playact as Ms. Walters.

Oprah Winfrey, left, appeared on Ms. Walters’s final appearance on “The View” in 2014. Sherri Shepherd, a co-host of the show, looks on.Ida Mae Astute/ABC

When Ms. Walters retired in 2014, dozens of female media luminaries — including Oprah Winfrey, Robin Roberts, Connie Chung, Maria Shriver and Diane Sawyer — turned up at her final taping of “The View.”

“I didn’t start out waving a banner and saying, ‘I’m going to change things for women,’” she said in a program for her 1989 induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. “But I think my work, my example, and some of the struggles I went through — and some of the terrible, terrible criticisms aimed at me — did change how women are perceived on television.”

Katie Couric, a longtime competitor of Ms. Walters’s, put it more bluntly to Vanity Fair: “She rattled a lot of cages before women were even allowed into the zoo.”

Ms. Walters developed an interviewing approach that combined charm and ferocity, setting her apart from men like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, who ruled television news early in her career.

“Newsier than other entertainment reporters, and more showbiz than other news reporters,” she became “an inescapable, if easily parodied, national monument,” according to The New Yorker.

She played basketball with Shaquille O’Neal for 24 seconds. Hugh Jackman gave her a lap dance. During a 1977 interview with the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, Ms. Walters sat in his open Jeep holding his revolver as well as candy for him to pass out to children during the drive, and later dined on grilled cheese sandwiches that he prepared at 1 a.m. in his kitchen.

Ms. Walters interviewing the Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1977.ABC

Sometimes, Ms. Walters spent years courting potential guests with handwritten notes. She was fond of asking personal questions, often about a subject’s childhood, and somewhat reluctantly became known for bringing her subjects to tears. Her first autobiography, published in 1970, was called “How to Talk with Practically Anybody about Practically Anything.”

This could include the kind of incisive foreign policy questions that she posed to every sitting president and first lady from Richard and Pat Nixon on. Or, she might dig for gossip, wanting to know about Barbra Streisand’s face (“Why didn’t you have your nose fixed?”) and Ricky Martin’s sexuality (“You could say, as many artists have, yes I am gay, or you could say, no I’m not.”).

She later said she regretted using the 2000 interview to pressure Mr. Martin, who did not come out until 2010 and told People magazine in 2021 that the exchange with Ms. Walters left him with “a little P.T.S.D.”

In a field studded with big personalities, Ms. Walters was idiosyncratic. Jane Fonda and Stockard Channing played film characters modeled after her. On “Saturday Night Live,” Gilda Radner mocked Ms. Walters’ voice, which Vogue characterized as “a distinctive Boston bleat at once flat, hoarse and nasal.”

She once joked that her own name was too difficult for her to say, with its “r’s” and “l,” and that she should have been named Diane Sawyer instead.

She became the subject of a Madame Tussauds wax figure. Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was placed on the sidewalk outside the theater used for the Academy Awards, between the stars for the television host Ryan Seacrest and the pop group Destiny’s Child — a “strange alignment” that Ms. Walters claimed “makes me hip and hot.”

But while celebrity came to define her, it did not seem to faze her.

Famous people moved frequently through her childhood, courtesy of her father, Lou Walters, an immigrant from England who she described as a “brilliant and mercurial impresario” who “made and lost several fortunes in show business.”

He catered to customers like the Hollywood billionaire Howard Hughes and the Kennedy family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, and worked with stars like Evelyn Nesbit, Frank Sinatra and Carol Channing. Ms. Walters wrote that when she saw them offstage and up close, she came to realize that “behind these fantasy figures were real people.”

But more than most other reporters, her relationships with well-known people extended into her personal life.

Ms. Walters’s paramours included multiple senators and the eventual Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. She went on a few dates and remained longtime friends with the Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes. She set off a backlash in 2014 when she defended the director Woody Allen, another friend, after his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow accused him of sexually assaulting her as a child.

Moving in the highest levels of power also opened Ms. Walters to questions about her snug relationships with sources. In 1987, she passed documents from Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant she had interviewed for “20/20,” to the White House — a move met with outrage by much of the journalism community. In 1996, Ms. Walters interviewed the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for “20/20,” but did not reveal that she had invested $100,000 in the production of his musical “Sunset Boulevard” on Broadway. ABC News admonished her about the oversight.

“It won’t happen again,” she said in a statement.

She was also criticized for what many saw as softball questions and overly rosy portrayals. In 2011, Ms. Walters described the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who had spent years violently crushing dissent, as having been “widely seen as a fresh pragmatic leader, a doctor whose life was in healing people,” before grilling him about his time spent as “a dictator and a tyrant.”

Later, Ms. Walters apologized for trying to help one of Mr. Assad’s aides, who had played a part in arranging the interview, seek an internship with CNN and entry into a Columbia University graduate program.

She told Vogue that while she could be opinionated on a wide range of issues, “you do not know what party I might vote for, or what candidate I like, whether I am pro-life or pro-choice, because essentially I work for the news department.”

Although she claimed to “hate grossness and toughness,” she told The Times in 1972 that she would “step on someone’s sensibilities if the interview demands it.”

While teaching an interviewing master class in 2015 at her alma mater, she instructed the group that female reporters “should do their job,” adding: “Don’t be pleasant. Don’t be fun. Be a journalist.”

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Vancouver woman wins identity fraud fight with Bell Mobility after posting on social media

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It’s been four blissfully quiet days since Erica Phillips last heard from the collection agencies ringing her two or three times daily for months, demanding payment of hundreds of dollars owed on a Bell Mobility account with her name on it that she never opened.

“It’s a huge sense of relief,” she said. “It’s so nice knowing that this won’t continue being a daily reminder of something that shouldn’t have been my problem to begin with.”

The Vancouver woman says she has been fighting the company for more than two years with little response, submitting documents supporting that the account was fraudulently opened using her name while at the same time filing reports with police, credit agencies and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

She says relief from the collection calls only came after she contacted news outlets and posted about her frustrations on social media.

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“I took all of the correct avenues,” she said. “I didn’t want to make myself public but I felt like I was forced to,” she said.

Phillips’ ordeal started in 2020 when she received notices mailed to an old address from both Rogers and Bell Mobility that said she owed money. She says she had never been a client of either company, so she thought they were a phishing scam. Further investigation found that identity fraudsters had used her personal information to open the accounts in her name.

She says Rogers took quick action to cancel the account when she contacted them, but Bell Mobility did not.

“That’s what seemed so insane to me at the beginning, that it was so easily taken care of with one of the companies and then not at all with the other,” said Phillips.

In an emailed statement, Bell Mobility told CBC:

“We have conducted an investigation and have determined that this account was fraudulent. We are attempting to contact the client and have advised our affiliated credit agencies of the billing error.”

The Consumer Protection B.C. website has information on how to prevent identity theft. It also has forms and advice for individuals who are being pursued by a company or collection agency for a debt that is not theirs.

Identity fraud and identity theft are criminal offences, but have become lucrative thanks to the growth of technology, according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

In 2021, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre issued an alert after a spike in identity fraud reporting.

“Fraudsters are using personal information about Canadians to apply for government benefits, credit cards, bank accounts, cellphone accounts or even take over social media and email accounts,” it said.

Phillips says in just one night her social media post received more than 100,000 views. She’s been surprised by the number of people who have reached out to her to say they too have been victims of identity fraud.

“It’s unbelievable the comments that I’m getting on all of the various stories now of people in similar situations,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

She says Bell Mobility has not apologized.

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Lawler pays tribute to Edmonton on social media, says goodbye to Elks ahead of CFL free agency

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He was the Edmonton Elks’ superstar free agent signing last year, but with one week to go until the next CFL free agency period begins, receiver Kenny Lawler announced on social media that he plans to leave Alberta’s capital.

“Thank you so much for allowing me to represent this city and this amazing organization,” the 28-year-old football player said in an Instagram post on Tuesday. He said his family was grateful for their brief time in the city.

“Everyone we crossed paths with helped make this transition easy as possible for us.”

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Ottawa Redblacks Patrick Levels (3) tackles Edmonton Elks Kenny Lawler (89) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday August 27, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Last off-season, the Elks signed Lawler to a one-year contract worth a reported $300,000, making him the highest paid player in the CFL who was not a quarterback.

Citing an anonymous source, The Canadian Press reported Tuesday that the receiver who hails from California has agreed to a deal in principle with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

CFL contracts cannot officially be agreed to until Feb. 14, when free agency officially begins. However, once the reported two-year deal is officially announced, it would mark Lawler’s return to Manitoba where he began his electrifying CFL career in 2019.

While playing for Winnipeg, Lawler helped the Bombers win Grey Cups in 2019 and 2021. In his only season with the Elks, Lawler managed to tally 58 catches for 894 yards and five touchdowns before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

The 2022 season for the Elks was a difficult one. The club went 4-14 as it continues to rebuild since losing key players like quarterback Mike Reilly in 2019. Lawler said despite the challenging season with the Green and Gold, he was grateful for the competitive spirit the coaching staff maintained.

“Though we fell short, you all were never compromised in getting us to settle for nothing less than the goal we set out to achieve,” Lawler said, adding he will miss the teammates he played with and that he has “gained relationships this year that I know will last a lifetime.”

–With files from Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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Media braces for the robot era

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The rapid rise of generative AI tools like ChatGPT could displace dozens of media companies if they don’t move quickly to adapt to a new internet reality.

Why it matters: Facebook’s many pivots pushed media outlets to move their focus away from social media and toward search — but now experts predict another major disruption for publishers relying on search traffic.

“It’s an undoing of the robotic behavior with which we were already committing journalism, because it’s questionable whether writing about National Donut Day really served anybody,” said S. Mitra Kalita, a former CNN executive who has co-founded two new local media companies, Epicenter NYC and URL Media.

  • “In some ways, the work we were doing towards optimizing for SEO and trending content was robotic. Arguably, we were using what was trending on Twitter and Google to create the news agenda. What happened was a sameness across the internet.”

Driving the news: BuzzFeed last week said it is using OpenAI’s publicly available software, which is similar to the popular generative text site ChatGPT, to automatically publish quizzes, beginning this month.

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  • “To be clear, we see the breakthroughs in AI opening up a new era of creativity that will allow humans to harness creativity in new ways with endless opportunities and applications for good,” the company’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, said in a memo to staffers.

BuzzFeed doesn’t plan to use AI to write journalistic articles, which seems to be a line that most publishers aren’t eager to cross.

  • But figuring out the right balance when using AI won’t be easy, as was made obvious by CNET’s AI mea culpa last month.
  • The CEO of Dotdash Meredith, a rival to CNET’s parent Red Ventures, told Axios last month that the firm “will never have an article written by a machine,” but it has already begun to bake AI into many of its workflows, like sourcing images.

Be smart: The past few years gave rise to a slew of successful digital media companies that focused on monetizing search traffic, while social media-reliant publishers struggled to adapt.

  • But the content that has done well on search, such as evergreen articles that help people answer questions or provide recommendations, is poised to be challenged by artificial intelligence.
  • “The most immediate impact of AI is probably that it becomes an efficiency tool,” said Brian Morrissey, former president and editor-in-chief of Digiday and author of a Substack newsletter on media called The Rebooting.

The big picture: Decades of constant pivots at the hands of Big Tech firms had media executives losing sight of which audiences they aimed to serve to begin with, Kalita noted.

  • ABC chief legal correspondent and media entrepreneur Dan Abrams said his media industry news site Mediaite began seeing record engagement once it started to push away from social media and search distribution.
  • The thinking has changed from “find the SEO angle” or “find the Facebook angle” to “find the Mediaite angle, and a large, loyal audience has followed,” Abrams said.
  • Around 16% of the site’s pageviews in 2022 came from homepage traffic, Abrams said.

What’s next: As search-based content becomes more commoditized, media brands will need to pivot towards serving specific audiences, rather than the masses.

  • “You’re going to have to get even more specialized as a publisher,” Morrissey said.

Bottom line: “Trying to compete on efficiency with robots never works, they always win,” Morrissey said.

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