Walters is, along with Mike Wallace, among the few remaining on-air television journalists whose careers encompass almost the entire history of television news. Before broadcast news emerged from the primordial ooze and separated itself from entertainment and commerce and opinion, just about everybody in front of the camera did a little of just about everything. Walters hawked Alpo on the air, assisted by live dogs. She got her big break, a full-time job on NBC’s “Today” show, in 1961, as a writer for a long-forgotten beauty named Anita Colby, who had a five-minute segment on the show that was sponsored by S & H Green Stamps and was devoted to fashion, makeup, and entertaining. Walters, whose first ambition was to be an actress and who had a couple of early jobs in public relations, became a journalist by accident, when NBC moved “Today” from the entertainment to the news division and a sympathetic boss decreed that she could write for all segments of the show. Her transition to on-air personality came by accident, too, when, after a few short, unplanned fill-ins, she got herself assigned to Paris to cover the fashion shows . . .
As she has gone from being well known to being famous and on to being an inescapable, if easily parodied, national monument, Walters has taken the reporter-source relationship to a strange new place. While Oprah Winfrey, who declared as a contestant in a teen-age pageant that Walters was who she wanted to be like when she grew up, can no longer pull off the act of being in a position inferior to those she interviews, Walters can, somehow. She also gets to offer her own opinions and feelings and to act as a combination of loving but gimlet-eyed mom and one-woman embodiment of American public opinion.