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CA

Barbara Walters, trailblazing first female U.S. network news anchor, dies at 93

For nearly four decades at ABC and NBC, Walter’s exclusive interviews with rulers, kings and entertainers earned her celebrity status on par with hers

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NEW YORK — Barbara Walters, the intrepid interviewer, presenter and program host who became the first woman to become a television news superstar during a network career remarkable for its length and diversity, has died. She was 93.

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Walters’ death was announced on the air by ABC on Friday night.

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“Barbara Walters died peacefully at her home surrounded by her loved ones. She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not just for women journalists, but for all women,” her publicist, Cindi Berger, said in a statement.

An ABC spokesman had no immediate comment Friday night, aside from a statement from Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, the ABC heard.

During nearly four decades at ABC and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with rulers, kings and entertainers earned her a celebrity status that rivaled hers, while also placing her at the forefront of the trend in broadcast journalism that was making TV reporters stars and put news programs in the race for higher ratings.

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Walters made headlines in 1976 as the network’s first female news anchor with an unprecedented $1 million annual salary that was gasping. Her drive was legendary as she competed – not just with competing networks, but with peers in her own network – for every major “win” in a world where there were a growing number of interviewers, including journalists who were of her own followed the path they had chosen.

“I never expected that!” Walters said in 2004, measuring her success. “I always thought I was going to be a writer for television. I never thought I would be in front of a camera.”

But she was a natural in front of the camera, especially pestering personalities with questions.

“I’m not scared when I’m interviewing, I’m not scared!” Walters told The Associated Press in 2008.

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With a voice that never lost track of her native Boston accent or its Ws-for-Rs substitution, Walters threw out blunt and sometimes dizzying questions on any subject, often dousing them with a hushed, awed speech.

“Offscreen, do you like you?” She once asked actor John Wayne, while Lady Bird Johnson was asked if she was jealous of her late husband’s reputation as a womanizer.

Late in her career, in 1997, she gave infotainment a new twist with “The View,” a live weekday ABC coffee gossip with an all-female panel for which every topic was on the table, and guests ranged from world leaders to Teenagers welcomed idols. A side project and unexpected hit, Walters considered The View the “dessert” of her career.

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Barbara Walters speaks onstage at the Daytime Emmy Awards in Beverly Hills June 23, 2012. 'I never thought I would be in front of a camera,' she once said of her career.
Barbara Walters speaks onstage at the Daytime Emmy Awards in Beverly Hills June 23, 2012. ‘I never thought I would be in front of a camera,’ she once said of her career. Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File

In May 2014, she taped her final episode of “The View” amid a grand ceremony and a gathering of dozens of luminaries to end a five-decade television career (although she continued to make occasional television appearances thereafter). During a commercial break, a bevy of television journalists she had paved the way for – including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and Connie Chung – posed with her for a group portrait.

“I have to remember that on my bad days,” Walters said softly, “because that’s for the best.”

Her career began without such signs of majesty.

In 1961, NBC hired her for a short-term writing project on the Today show. Shortly thereafter, among the eight writers, what was seen as the woman icon’s seat opened up to the staff, and Walters got the job. Then she began airing occasional offbeat stories like “A Day in the Life of a Nun” or The Troubles of a Playboy Bunny. For the latter, she wore bunny ears and heels to work at the Playboy Club.

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Since she appeared more frequently, she was spared the title “Today” girl, which had been attached to her symbolic female predecessors. But she had to pay her dues and sometimes sprinted between interviews on the Today set to do dog food commercials.

She had the first interview with Rose Kennedy after the assassination of her son Robert, as well as Princess Grace of Monaco, President Richard Nixon and many others. She traveled to India with Jacqueline Kennedy, to China and Iran with Nixon to cover the Shah’s gala party. But they suffered a setback in 1971 with the arrival of a new host, Frank McGee. Though they could share the desk, he insisted she wait for him to ask three questions before she could open her mouth during joint interviews with “influential people.”

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Sensing that more freedom and opportunity awaited her outside of the studio, she set out to produce more exclusive interviews for the program, including Nixon Chief of Staff HR Haldeman.

By 1976, she was granted the title of co-host of “Today” and was making $700,000 a year. But when ABC signed her to a five-year, $5 million deal, the salary numbers branded her “the million-dollar baby.”

Reports of her deal failed to mention that her professional responsibilities would be split between the network’s entertainment division (for which she would do interview specials) and ABC News, which then came in third place. Meanwhile, Harry Reasoner, her veteran co-anchor of the ABC Evening News, is said to have resented her high salary and celebrity orientation.

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“Harry didn’t want a partner,” Walters summarized. “Even though he was horrible to me, I don’t think he disliked me.”

Not only the shaky relationship with her co-moderator brought Walters problems.

Comedian Gilda Radner taunted her on the new Saturday Night Live as a rhotacist commentator named “Baba Wawa.” And after her interview with newly-elected President Jimmy Carter, in which Walters told Carter “be wise with us,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer publicly mocked her as “the first female pope to bless the new cardinal.”

It was a time that seemed to mark the end of everything she had worked for, she later recalled.

“I thought it was all over: ‘How stupid of me to ever have left NBC!'”

But salvation came in the form of a new boss, ABC News President Roone Arledge, who pushed her out of the co-anchor slot and into special projects for ABC News. Meanwhile, she’s found success with her quarterly prime-time interview specials. A regular contributor to ABC’s 20/20 magazine, she teamed up with then-host Hugh Downs and became a co-host in 1984. A perennial favorite was her review of this year’s “10 Most Fascinating People.”

Walters is survived by their only daughter, Jacqueline Danforth.

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