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"The Rulebreaker" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

Barbara Jill Walters was a trailblazer in television journalism. She was not the first woman television journalist. She was the one who made headlines, so the few women who preceded her were soon forgotten. Walters passionately pressed for her jobs, and many male colleagues felt threatened by her relentless drive to succeed. When Walters—a co-host of NBC’s Today show—was elevated to ABC’s Evening News in 1976 with an annual salary of $1 million, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite said he experienced a “wave of nausea, the sickening sensation that perhaps we were all going under.”

Harry Reasoner and Walters co-anchored the ABC Evening News for only a year and a half because ABC’s male-female experiment received poor ratings. However, three years later, in 1979, she became cohost of 20/ 20 and became well-known for her penetrating interviews of high-profile subjects. Her interview with Monica Lewinsky on March 3, 1999, was watched by a record-breaking 74 million Americans.

Walters never made her personal life public, not even in her 2008 memoir, “Audition.” Author Susan Page makes up for that void, devoting much of “Rulebreaker” to Walter’s private life. Walters had a rootless, unstable upbringing. Her father, Lou Walters, was a nightclub owner in New York, Miami, and Boston, a flamboyant businessman who gained and squandered many fortunes. He did business with organized crime figures and other “folk who might have spent some time in prison, or were at risk of going there.” His unpredictable, sometimes suicidal lifestyle caused his wife and two daughters to worry about their future continually.

Barbara Walters had three failed marriages. Her adopted daughter, Jacqueline Dena Guber, neglected by Walter’s work schedule, struggled with substance abuse. The mother-daughter relationship was strained and contentious for many years. Walter’s work was her sheltered place.

The famous journalist was skilled at forging relationships with powerful men like Yassar Arafat, Fidel Castro, and Donald Trump. She had affairs with Senator Edward Brooke, Alan Greenspan, and other prominent men. An unyielding competitor, she was “addicted to the chase” for interview subjects and “woe to anyone, man or woman, who stood in her path.” She and younger journalist Diane Sawyer were spiteful, bitter rivals. Having created a niche, Walters fought all her life to protect her status in the newsroom.

At 67, Walters created The View, a daytime talk show with an all-female panel. She appeared on that show until she was 82, when poor health forced her to retire, though unwillingly. She died in 2022 at 93.

“The Rulebreaker” explores the history of women in the television industry. Walters is recognized for breaking many glass ceilings and moving women’s rights forward by proving to be a well-informed and competent presence in a career formerly of all male newscasters.

Susan Page draws on countless sources and hundreds of interviews to create a fast-paced, even-handed, sobering biography of Barbara Walters. Many pages of photographs document the history of television journalism from its inception to the present. “The Rulebreaker” is a perceptive reminiscence of an American icon that is hard to put down.

About the Author: Susan Page is the award-winning Washington Bureau Chief of USA Today. She has covered seven White House administrations and is currently covering the 2024 presidential election. She has written “The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty” and “Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power.”


 

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