The day I met Barbara Walters in a bathrobe: Interviewing a grasp interviewer
June, 2008. It was a superb factor I had my faculty journalism intern LeeAnn with me, for when the esteemed Barbara Walters answered the door of her 4 Seasons suite wearing a fluffy white bathrobe — and who is aware of what else or not beneath in addition to her camisole — I blushed like a schoolboy. A clueless, flummoxed schoolboy.
“Are available in,” she mentioned, and took a seat on a paisley pink camelback sofa. She patted the cushion beside her and smiled. “Sit down!” I glanced saucer-eyed at LeeAnn, fearful that I’d do one thing dumb, like journey on the sofa leg and upset the fragile steadiness between my being a professional interviewer and klutz interloper; Ms. Walters being sorta clothed and stripped by a pratfall.
LeeAnn didn’t miss a beat. She struck up some effervescent small discuss with Walters, the sort brilliant younger reporters accomplish that effectively. That allowed me to gather myself, get out my tape recorder and shove the ten lumps in my throat again to whence they got here.
It was extra, after all, than the sudden greeting. Walters, who handed away Dec. 30 at 93, perfected the excessive media artwork of drawing out interviewees as well-known because the legal guidelines of superstar, politics, royalty and scandal would permit. She feared nobody — that was her energy — but in addition lead her topics to disclose their deep hurts and doubts with none trace of intrusiveness — that was her sensitivity, and it bordered on the paranormal.
And I used to be presupposed to interview her? On paper, it felt like a mismatch alongside the strains of the Chicago Cubs vs. the Dangerous Information Bears.
“Can I get you one thing to drink?” she requested.
And we had been simply getting began.
From ‘tea pourer’ to prime anchor
The event of my Chicago Tribune interview was the discharge of her autobiography “Audition,” a e book that advised the pretty unimaginable life story of how she grew up in a showbiz household. Her father produced the Ziegfiled Follies, and likewise staged a home high-wire act that noticed Walters and her kin bounce between excessive instances and simply scraping by.
He was gone for lengthy stretches. It was, she recalled, an sad childhood.
As Walters broke into TV by way of NBC’s “At present” present within the early Nineteen Sixties, she bucked up in opposition to chauvinism we’d discover unthinkable right this moment. Nobody took the concept of a girl reporting arduous information significantly. As one of many “At present Women,” she was relegated to gentle tales and climate updates. Wanting again, Walters dismissed the function as being a “tea pourer.”
However by 1976, she was knocking down $1 million a 12 months as an ABC Night Information anchor — the equal of $5.24 million right this moment. Contemplating the continued resistance of the boys round her, together with co-anchor Harry Reasoner, I’d say she earned each penny. The unreasonable Reasoner thought of her hiring a stunt. However Walters took the excessive highway, later opining that Reasoner was sad usually along with his lot as a co-anchor.
Although I loved the wealthy life particulars Walters divulged in “Audition,” I additionally learn it as primer on how one can higher do my job. By the point I’d met her, I had already come to grasp that you just can’t stroll into a celeb interview starstruck. However this one was arduous. I imply: My editor needed to assign the fanboy.
Interviewing, the Walters means
The way in which some reporters geek out over rock stars or actors, I thought of Walters an early affect. Among the many many male TV journalists I admired rising up — from the puckish, bow-tied Charles Osgood to the unflappable Ed Bradley, who began in my hometown of Philly — Walters was an outlier by account of her gender.
I couldn’t assist however discover what she delivered to the desk: empathy and intelligence, filtered by way of her leisure background and sealed with only a sprint of “don’t fuck with me.” Persistent, a 1971 New York Instances piece famous, however not aggressive, “and it’s this unrelenting effort to maintain the confabulatory ball bouncing that places some viewers on edge.”
“I’ve developed a specific kind of interview,” Walters mentioned then. “I’m good at drawing folks out — there’s a skinny line between asking essential questions effectively and making somebody mad. Additionally, I’m right here to offer some femininity.”
How may I not admire an method like that? I used to be, in spite of everything, a momma’s boy.
Take a tragic sack and make him higher…
Whether or not by deft trick or dumb luck, it occurred to me (as soon as I collected myself and bought used to the bathrobe factor) that readers could be dying to understand how Walters did it. What made her this interviewer nonpareil? How did she coax tales and confessions from seemingly unimaginable, impenetrable topics akin to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro?
In probing this, I knew I’d decide up essential pointers myself. Think about that you’ve got simply enrolled in a kind of video Grasp Lessons with Walters, solely it’s in particular person and you’ve got her undivided consideration. That was the chance I sensed and I went for it.
To the journalism hopefuls who have no idea, and my fellow veterans who might have forgotten: One of many supreme privileges of this job is to be taught from the greats we encounter on task, who enrich us lengthy after the deadline has handed.
Regardless, this was very a lot a funhouse mirror, mise en abîme: I’m interviewing an interviewer about how she interviews, hoping it is going to make me a greater interviewer.
I’m additionally attempting mightily to not screw up.
Maybe in that second Walters sensed from the place I sat, the precarious steadiness of all of it. Not by dint of my interrogatory talent however her generosity, she let me in on some secrets and techniques. She felt certainly one of her early books, from 1971, would shed some gentle on her media modus operandi.
The title mentioned all of it: “Find out how to discuss with virtually anyone about virtually something.”
So Barbara, did I cross the ‘Audition’?
From Walters, I discovered that the very best interviewers have mastered the artwork of dialog. When the mediocre minds of the newsroom insist that each query should be hammered out prematurely, ignore them. As a substitute leverage the very best of your listening, your empathy, your curiosity.
Which is precisely what Walters was doing with me.
I requested Barbara to grade my efficiency whereas she was on the document, and he or she did. I believe she may’ve most well-liked I took copious notes and never rely solely on my tape recorder. “However you’re clearly making an effort to learn the e book,” she advised me. “And that’s one thing you need to bear in mind: Do your homework.”
I threw the persnickety-snickety of ethics and church-state partitions apart and requested her to signal my copy of “Audition.” I nonetheless have it. She additionally shared her ABC e mail tackle and inspired me to remain in contact. That I misplaced out of some low shallowness quirk that took my therapist years to crack (identical story with Robert Downey Jr.’s contact data after an analogous invitation.)
It’s additionally a kind of life errors — with a forgiving, small “m” — the place you simply assume you’ll see somebody afterward down the road, renew the connection, decide up the dialog. On this case, I remorse my passivity deeply. What I’d give to return, to name Walters a mentor, a coach, a pal. However as any scribe is aware of, the magnetic pull of the following deadline is a drive, a distraction, an dependancy that many people merely can’t resist.
I’m certain Walters would have mentioned as a lot: By no means transfer so quick as to forsake your relationships.
Because it stands, I nonetheless maintain on to deep gratitude. Thanks, Barbara Walters, for the affect you made on my profession; the superb interviews you shared with us all; and the boundaries you broke for feminine journalists …
… together with LeeAnn, who within the dozen-plus years because you met her has gone on to nice issues. I’m happy with her, and I’d prefer to assume you’d be, too.
Lou Carlozo is the Editor and Writer of Speaking Biz Information. All opinions expressed are clad in a skimpy bathrobe of intelligence. E-mail email@example.com or join on LinkedIn.
You may learn my unique interview with Barbara Walters by clicking right here.