Barbara Walters and the curse of celebrity journalism

Walters’ success has encouraged a fixation with the famous and infamous in journalism.

FILE PHOTO: Barbara Walters speaks on stage at the 39th Daytime Emmy Awards in Beverly Hills, California June 23, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
Barbara Walters speaks on stage at the 39th Daytime Emmy Awards in Beverly Hills, California on June 23, 2012 [File: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]

A confession: I never intended on becoming a journalist.

I didn’t study the craft at university. When I did spend time in class, I took a potpourri of political science and history courses. With one or two memorable exceptions, the professors I encountered along the way treated teaching like an irritating chore.

So, bored, I spent a lot of time in libraries – reading. Eventually, I got a degree. But, like the prolific American writer, Ray Bradbury – who was too poor to attend college – I graduated, in effect, from the library.

That’s where I discovered and devoured the stories and thinking of Bradbury, Jack London, Frederick Douglass and I F Stone, among so many others.

Later, I understood that each of these formidable iconoclasts helped shape not only the journalist I was to become but my stubborn belief that journalism could, at its best, be a means to challenge the powerful, right wrongs and expose buried truths.

I felt a particular kinship with Stone, an impish Jewish bookworm with dimples who dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania to pursue, like me, a career in newsrooms rather than the classroom.

Unemployed and blacklisted, Stone began a newsletter called I F Stone’s Weekly in 1953. A one-horse publishing house, Stone did it all: research, writing, editing, and layout for 19 years.

Stone and his muckraking pamphlet were everything journalism should and can be: fearless, sober, elegant and, perhaps above all, a potent vehicle to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Stone was a devout “outsider” who considered stardom and riches to be the antithesis of journalism. He preferred to work alone, freed, as he was, from the compromises and constraints that mainstream news organisations often demand and require.

Stone’s modesty and affinity for burrowing away in obscurity for the truth stand as a stark counterpoint to the lucrative career and, at times, unfortunate influence of the late television personality, Barbara Walters, who died on the eve of the new year.

In glowing obituaries, Walters was credited with being a pioneer who first pierced the male-dominated landscape of American network news. To her credit, Walters led what would, within a few generations, become a welcomed wave of female correspondents destined to share her rank and status.

Alas, Walters squandered that leadership, choosing instead to pursue the inconsequential allure and trappings of celebrity over the hard, usually mundane work of journalism that Stone practised methodically year after productive year.

Walters’ gooey gallery of interviews with the who’s who of Hollywood and world capitals was largely a vapid vanity exercise with little, if any, journalistic value, unless you consider making Beatles drummer Ringo Starr cry newsworthy.

Ultimately, Walters’ career devolved into a tabloid-like fixation with the famous and infamous. This gaudy pantomime had one overarching intent: to establish Barbara Walters as an irresistible powerbroker who could win the confidence and trust of A-listers in film, TV and politics and boost ratings to boot.

That is not journalism. That is acting as handmaiden to an eclectic galaxy of grateful stars cloaked in the patina of journalism.

Walters had become the kind of “insider” that should be anathema to any journalist who knows that easy access to and cosy familiarity with the powers that be inevitably erodes the adversarial relationship that must exist between them.

As such, Stone would, I think, have been appalled at the suggestion that Walters’ glossy, ratings-driven schtick bore any resemblance to reporting. Her friction-free interviews confirmed that Walters relished the role of the happy conduit for the rich and famous who made her rich and famous.

Stone wasn’t preoccupied with star-gazing frivolity. He knew that to ferret out the truth meant spending hours inspecting public records with a keen, critical eye and finding anonymous bureaucrats who could help him answer questions that the public interest demanded to be answered.

Digging away on a threadbare budget, Stone broke dozens of important stories, including exposing how US President Lyndon Johnson had lied about an “unprovoked attack” against two US destroyers on “routine patrol” in the Gulf of Tonkin, which led to a resolution in Congress authorising the use of force in Vietnam and the disastrous escalation to come.

In contrast, Walters’ trite, self-serving vision of the fourth estate was that of a candy store, where the audience could indulge in cheap, sweet confections, untroubled by the lies, crimes and injustices committed by crooks and liars in high places.

Despite her journalistic clout and supposed acumen, I cannot recall one significant story of any lasting consequence that Walters was responsible for breaking throughout her decades-long career.

Success breeds imitation and repetition. And that, I believe, is the curse of Barbara Walters.

Walters has spawned a bevvy of male and female disciples more interested in landing “the get” interview with the celebrity du jour rather than investing time, energy and money in more pressing stories that need attention.

In this ephemeral calculus, journalism has become a distant bystander to the pursuit of a burst of notoriety.

Walters was not solely responsible for this corrosive phenomenon. Still, she certainly contributed to the disagreeable emergence of “star” hosts whose only discernible on-air talent is to play the interviewing equivalent of T-ball with a bunch of agreeable celebrities.

Viewers attracted to this tripe will see Walters’ legacy on sorry display this Sunday evening when Anderson Cooper’s convivial chat with Prince Harry takes up valuable real estate on the venerable CBS newsmagazine, 60 Minutes.

If Walters and Stone were here, she would, no doubt, bemoan not scoring the coveted tête-a-tête. Meanwhile, he would lament the all too familiar frippery.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.