How Barbara Walters, and Hugh Downs, Helped Pave the Way for Female News Journalists

JoAnn Ryan

A tribute to the late great legend in news and, perhaps, a few forgotten additional heroes in the story.
Journalist Barbara Walters, at the Metropolitan Opera opening in 2008Photo byMartyna Borkowski

In my formative decade, otherwise known as the 1980s, women began slowly marching their way into all aspects of life in unprecedented ways. By this time, Barbara Walters had fought and won a lot of battles, and in doing so, paved the way for other women like Diane Sawyer, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts, Christiane Amanpour and others to launch their own careers in television news journalism.

These days, many simply call Walters a trailblazer and a pioneer for changing the story.

I myself always found Walters fascinating to watch. She was as tough as she was compassionate, as smart as she was down-to-Earth and as vivacious as she was unassuming.

What a tremendous role model she was for young girls like me.
Walters with President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan in 1986Photo byWhite House Photographic Collection (Public Domain)

Born in 1974, I’m just old enough though, to remember a time when television news was dominated predominantly by Caucasian men. They dominated many other things as well during this time: business, politics, the judicial system, film production, the military — oh, but the list could go on and on really. Couldn't it?

Not that I’m planning to have a white-male bashing party here. Not at all. Amongst all men, there have always been those who have been willing to support a strong and intelligent woman for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.

Men like Hugh Downs, who I’ve long had tremendous respect for. He was the one who not only suggested Walters for the role of co-anchor of The Today Show but went on to adamantly advocate for her placement in the face of opposition.

And of course, after this placement, Walters’ career as a news journalist skyrocketed. People loved her. I loved her.

Thus, Downs, too, was a pioneer of sorts as well, as it may not have made him so likeable around fellow news journalist colleagues, like proud card-carrying male chauvinists Frank McGee and Harry Reasoner, both of whom made it all too clear that Walters was in no way their equal.

Downs himself said this in the following interview:

“A lot of bad press she got, undeservedly, from insecure males who resented the fact that she was paid a lot of money and her ambitions were unfolding in a way they didn’t like… they attacked her very falsely in many ways.”

Nor did they make any apologies for it or make any attempt to hide it.

In the clip, Downs goes on to praise Walters for her skill as an interviewer:

“She’s such a good interviewer because she really represents the viewer on the other side of the tube... If a guest of hers gives an evasive answer and you’re sitting home watching it and you think ‘yeah, but what about’… she won’t leave you hanging.”

Wouldn’t all of us love to work with someone like this? Such respect and admiration he had for Walters.

They went on to work together on my personal favorite show of Walters', 20/20. The way they investigated the most fascinating issues of the day, to me, was just as enjoyable as more age-appropriate shows like Family Ties or Tom and Jerry.

Downs also passed away not too long ago, in 2020, of all years. He was 99 years old.

I also enjoyed watching this little chat between Jane Pauley, Ted Koppel and Sam Donaldson.

Koppel honesty presented “the other side” when he said:

“For so many years, it was really unacceptable the notion that a woman could succeed in the same way that a man had in broadcast news.”

But succeed she did, and in doing so proved the naysayers wrong.

So, instead of having a blanket male bashing party, why don’t we only bash on the ones who truly deserve it, like McGee and Reasoner, while lauding praise to those who deserve a lot of credit for their support of female news journalists.
Barbara Walters in her office, as photographed in 1979, New YorkPhoto byLynn Gilbert

Thank you, Barbara Walters, for leaving us your incredible legacy, and thank you to all the strong women, and men, like Hugh Downs and others, who supported her and loved her as well.

What about you? What do you think about the legacy of Barbara Walters, and Hugh Downs?

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