By Jeri Asaro
Back in the 70s, when publishing was all hands-on with no computers, I was chosen the unlikely editor of my high school newspaper for three of my four years. I was the youngest student ever asked to be editor-in- chief, and I dedicated my time to producing an impressive newspaper. Unlike my male predecessor, I became involved in the nitty-gritty of the work, from writing to delegating, from layout to design; plus I spent countless hours at the printer with my teacher/advisor, Mrs. Barton, learning the basics of the trade. I knew then that some part of my adult life would involve a career in communications.
Before long, the once-quarterly newspaper increased production to every two weeks and in a revised, oversized format. We developed a growing staff of talented student writers and artists. The newspaper was fully created by teens, under the guidance of our encouraging and helpful advisor. Back when we had no cell phones; social media did not exist, and our televisions had only seven stations, my curiosity about a career in journalism blossomed.
During those same years, my new-found interest pushed me to watch the evening news on television, and I was introduced to many news anchors. But, where were the women? For the most part, the faces of the anchors and the reporters were men. David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Walter Cronkite, Douglas Edwards, Frank McGee – all men! As I was working so hard to further myself in a possible career option, I found that there were few female figures in media who could be a role model for me.
In the summer months, I spent my mornings with my mom, as she ironed in our living room. She enjoyed The Today Show, which is basically the same, upbeat morning show presently televised on NBC. Barbara Walters was one of the broadcasters, and while I was in high school, she officially became the first woman co-host on any television show. It was during those years, I realized that women could enter a communications field and find success.
When Walters was on the screen, I studied her. I paid attention to her professional tone, her clothing choices, even her sense of humor. Watching her interview a personality was inspiring. She knew what questions to ask, how to ask them, and how to handle the interview to get answers, while providing the audience with a great show. The more popular she became, the more arrogant I became about my work on the school newspaper.
Life lessons were learned during those critical high school years. In our town, there had been a horrible plane crash in an area with easy visibility to those on the ground. For weeks, the cars, the traffic, the “gawkers” really upset me. People had died tragic deaths in this accident, and it seemed that all that was reported or gossiped about in town was the speculation about how it all occurred and whose fault it was. I just wanted those who had lost their lives to rest in peace.
My over-dramatic, teenaged reaction was to use my rights as a journalist (yes, my influential and high-paying position as editor-in- chief of the high school paper) to write a pretty scathing and opinionated editorial in our newspaper. My words were harsh towards those inspecting and observing the crash site.
What I didn’t expect was the large backlash. Even though it was only a high school paper, the word traveled, and the administration of the school was suddenly involved. It was the first time in my life that the real-world was getting an impression of me, and I experienced my first set of sleepless nights worried about my actions. I was worried about myself, my family, and my staff. In the end, my wonderful advisor was disciplined, and it felt like it was all my fault.
Many adults responded to my editorial by explaining their sides of the story – the whys to their “gawking” We printed those retorts, and some were quite compelling. I quickly learned the power of the written word. From that point forward, I also understood that there are two, three, and four sides to every story, and I needed to have knowledge of all sides before I formed my opinion. These hard-learned lessons carried me far in my careers in both publishing and education. My respect for “real” journalists grew as I began to understand the importance of their jobs, and their influence on others. My admiration for Ms. Walters increased, and I began to follow her career, not only to learn from her as a woman, but to help me determine the career path of my future.
From 1976 forward, Walters became a pioneer for women in journalism. She faced much criticism from many of her male counterparts, but she persevered and scored some of the most exclusive interviews of all time. Not only was she a professional, but she was a dedicated mother. Besides being the first female news anchor of an evening broadcast, she earned a salary that was renowned for a women in broadcast news. She produced and co-hosted the show, 20-20. Her interviews of politicians and entertainers became legendary on the Barbara Walters Specials. Many of those icons would not be questioned by anyone else but Walters herself.
In Walters’s more recent years, she developed and co-hosted The View, which includes an all-women cast who discuss the most important issues of the day. It is dubbed the “Place to be Heard.” On this show, the cast’s varied opinions are noticed and reported daily, sometimes with backlash but most often, all sides of the story are presented, as the view of each cast member is quite diverse.
In 2013, Walters retired, but not without paving the way for many other women journalists, or women in related fields. As she aged with the industry, she continued to open doors for women conquering on-air ageism as well. Other journalists follow in her footsteps like Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, and Lesley Stahl. It is about being smart, educated, and exceptional at the job, and not about the age or gender you are when you are doing it. At 60, I appreciate that advancement in the communications field. I enjoy watching and hearing the views of women near my age in deserved, successful positions!
As in many fields, there are still gender imbalances in the communications-related jobs. However, because of icons like Walters, many popular shows today are practically run by women. The Dr. Phil Show is staffed almost entirely by females. More women are creating shows, like Orange is the New Black, by Jenji Cohan. Women broadcasters are now seen regularly on all stations, where they report the news and/or offer their educated opinions.
There is still room for growth, but it is comforting to see women offering their insight in sports media. During the last Olympics, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Meredith Vieira host the televised show – the first woman to do so. Not too many years ago, women were not allowed in the locker rooms or on the sports fields. Progress is slow, but it is being made.
For me personally, while Walters’s career blossomed, I entered college and majored in English and Communications. It turned out my high school hours at the printer paid off, and my talents and interests were best suited to theproduction side of print journalism. Before becoming an English teacher, I had a 23-year lucrative career in the publishing and advertising industries.
Barbara Walters gave this ‘70s teenager a mentor to admire at a time when women were not highly-regarded in the communications field. I miss hearing her ideas, but as a woman approaching retirement age myself, one of her later quotes, after more than 50-years in the industry, makes me smile.
“I do not want to appear on another program or climb another mountain. I want instead to sit on a sunny field and admire the very gifted women—and OK, some men too—who will be taking my place.”
You, Barbara Walters, in my eyes, are irreplaceable.