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Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 05/ 8/2008

Highbrow: The Dumbing Down of Barbara Walters

By Liz Kelly
Highbrow

There was a time when Barbara Walters was considered a gold standard example of a female journalist -- a woman who had made her way to the top of a male-dominated field in an era when women in TV news were more likely to be weather "girls." She was the flesh-and-blood, boots to the ground version of Mary Tyler Moore's struggling, unsinkable Girl Friday makes good. She interviewed Castro, she co-anchored the evening news and she developed a reputation for scoring interviews with tough nuts to crack -- Saddam Hussein, Hillary Clinton (mid Starr Report release), Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin together.

Now, not so much. She's a celebrity interviewer -- a white Oprah, a female Larry King, a Barbara Walters.


Barbara Walters arrives at a New York bookstore to sign copies of her new book, 'Audition.' (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)

Walters was already teetering close to fluff territory when she birthed "The View" and its attendant ugly in-fighting with Star Jones and Rosie O'Donnell. And all of this overwrought drama for a show that aspired to much, but delivered little -- saccharin moments, claw-bearing split-screen moments, utterly misinformed moments, TMI moments. And, just like that, as if a layer of gauze had been removed from the camera lens, one's view of Walters was cemented. She was no longer news legend, but a news debaser. She traded interviewing Castro about his stalwart stances for quizzing ABC primetime stars about their shows and clucking over "hot topics" with her ladies-in-waiting.

And with this week's release of her memoir, "Audition," Walters has taken her image as far away from its platinum roots as possible and into full-on Jerry Springer territory with revelations of an affair with a married Senator and the grande dame's thoughts about some of her former co-workers.

As excerpted yesterday, The Post's Howard Kurtz lauded Walters for her career, calling her "a tenacious 78-year-old woman who, despite occasional mistakes, has managed to overcome every setback in achieving her exalted status as veteran journalist, celebrity interviewer and world-class yenta."

Over at Huffington Post, guest blogger Jesse Kornbluth doesn't quite share Kurtz's rosy view of Walters. If she's such a big deal journalist, he seems to say, why stoop to using sex to sell her book?

"When it comes to celebrities, she has more stories than Perez Hilton. Why did she choose to serve up Edward Brooke, naked, for the vicarious delight of Oprah's audience? It's tempting to speculate. Hot action between the sheets is bracing publicity for a 77-year-old woman. And there's no danger of blowback: Brooke's retired and private, not likely to retaliate. If those aren't the ingredients of a fast launch on the bestseller list, I'm clueless."

Fellow Huff Poster John Ridley, commenting on Brooke's being the first black Republican Senator elected by popular vote, boils Walters's outing of her affair thusly:

"...I'm not saying Barbara Walters isn't classy. But if somebody does forget to remind me not to have an affair with her, at least remind me to ask: "This is off the record, right?"

Star Jones may just agree. After Walters revealed in the book -- and on Oprah earlier this week -- that Jones asked her and the rest of the "View" crew to cover for her gastric bypass, Jones had this to say:

"It is a sad day when an icon like Barbara Walters, in the sunset of her life, is reduced to publicly branding herself as an adulterer, humiliating an innocent family with accounts of her illicit affair and speaking negatively against me all for the sake of selling a book. It speaks to her true character."

Owee.

Despite the illicit confessions and catfighting, New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin thinks the book lacks the energy needed to propel a reader through the sometimes tedious memoir format:

"A little more barbed frankness would have gone rather far in a book that uses "rather" as its favorite modifier."

Jolly good. Though blogger Seth Godin says the Times's two stories on Walters were two stories too many, taking away valuable space from books that actually need promotion to reach the public:

"Merely because a link to the other sites that can happily review and sell me her book is far more effective than wasting time and resources flogging a book that needs no flogging."

Or does it?

By Liz Kelly  | May 8, 2008; 10:50 AM ET
Categories:  Highbrow  
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