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Farewell to Barbara Walters, One of the Last Great Listeners

Barbara Walters attends "A Celebration of Barbara Walters" honoring her at the Four Seasons on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Barbara Walters attends "A Celebration of Barbara Walters" honoring her at the Four Seasons on Wednesday, May 14, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

TV newswoman Barbara Walters retires from on-air work this week on The View and ABC News, having lived and broadcast so long in the mass media age that she outlasted the term “newswoman.”

At 84, Walters even outlasted most of the technology that brought her into America’s living rooms — first as a tea-pouring Today girl in the 1960s; then as the first woman to co-anchor a nightly newscast in the mid-‘70s; followed by 35 years as popular culture’s grande dame of the televised interview — adapting her skills to the speed with which news sparks conversations and celebrities melt down.

She’s one of America’s last good ears, allowing even the most notorious among us to have a say, asking many (if not always all) of the questions we wanted answers to, while never seeming to make the occasion about herself.

Her TV career, most of it with ABC News, was preoccupied with “the most fascinating” people and topics. She put a premium on listening and made it her brand, even when she started and co-hosted a successful midmorning kaffeeklatsch in 1997 called The View.

People who compare The View to a chattering hen yard haven’t watched it closely enough to see that its core value is rooted in listening to one another, even in moments of utter cacophony. Over there, stage left, was Barbara Walters, mostly listening, waiting to chime in. In this reactionary world of ours, who on earth still waits to chime in?

Two weeks ago, when V. Stiviano, a companion and self-described “right hand arm man” and “silly rabbit” of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, reached the part of her express-ticket scandal ride where one selects an empathetic TV inquisitor from an array of offers, she went where so very many presidents, first ladies, movie stars, despots, criminals, candidates, rock legends, heroes and villains have gone before: to the gauzy-but-somehow-still-clear gaze of the Barbara Walters lens.

The interview, which aired May 2 on 20/20 (a show Walters helped rescue from the dumps), will not be remembered for anything much, except maybe that it will be Walters’ final “get” in an endless list of them. It’s a long way from her interview with Fidel Castro in 1977. It’s a long way from her following President Richard Nixon to China in 1972. It’s even a long way from the two-hour, 1999 interview she did with Monica Lewinsky that lured in between 50 million and 74 million viewers,the sort of non-football TV ratings that simply can’t be had anymore.

Beamed in from Los Angeles, Walters told 20/20 co-hosts Elizabeth Vargas and David Muir about a hectic day spent trying to get Sterling to submit to an on-camera interview. Walters seemed disappointed, exasperated even. Still the professional, she served up the booby prize — a seven-minute interview with Stiviano alone, in which Walters, bless her, tried to decode the arrangement between the 80-year-old billionaire and his 31-year-old female friend. By now, Walters functions as America’s still stylish and ceaselessly probing grandmother, willing to ask just about anything.

“I’m not sure I understand the relationship,” Walters said.

“What isn’t there to understand?” her subject replied.

When it was over, Muir urged 20/20 viewers to tweet all their important thoughts about this with a hashtag. The interview then joined the thousands of hours of Walters’s video oeuvre, much of it ephemeral but still reflective of life in the age of post-Warholian fame, focused on people who had a minute or more in the spotlight. So many of them vanished; Barbara Walters remained. What isn’t there to understand?

In her dotage, Walters lost some of her edge and opened herself to criticism of being too gentle or too allied with her subjects. Ever since America swooned over her $1 million contract to jump from NBC to ABC in 1976, her own fame became difficult to separate from the fame of her subjects. The soft-focus grew so soft in the past 15 years that you had to change channels just to make sure you weren’t suddenly afflicted with cataracts.

Her sincerity sometimes crossed signals with her townhouse demeanor. At some point you were just meant to understand that she was fancy. Whether she went to war zones or Oscar night, she was never a fly on the wall. Her presence conveyed meaning and her scoop was the exclusive interview. These gets became everything, and rather than cede territory, Walters fought for more gets as her competition circled (Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, even the intra-network rivalry with Diane Sawyer and now Robin Roberts, whose own careers owe no small debt to hers.)

The Barbara Walters piece of any moment (be it a war, a scandal, a memoir, a sequel) meant that things had reached an apex. The hype could float no higher. Whoever it was, whatever the story was; after the Barbara interview, it was usually all over. The story had been exhausted and began its descent.

Walters has also outlasted the ritual farewells our culture once bestowed on her male peers and anchormen of yore — Walter Cronkite’s 1981 retirement being a prime example — back when the broadcast networks and the nightly news dominated both the business and the viewer’s attention. Her last lap has been eclipsed by all the retirements and hirings and shuffling on late-night TV.

The farewells scheduled this week for Walters (who will remain available when and if duty calls) seem almost perfunctory, even nominal, such as the (lovely, I’m sure) naming ceremony this week of an ABC News headquarters building on West 66th Street in New York after her. Her departure, announced a year ago, will take up Thursday’s and today’s episodes of The View, followed by a two-hour ABC News retrospective ( Barbara Walters: Her Story ) tonight.

On NBC, Saturday Night Live welcomed her last week as a surprise visitor to its Weekend Update segment; but that mostly turned out to be a brief tribute to decades of the show’s own “Baba Wawa” jokes — an indelible impression first made by Gilda Radner and later riffed on by subsequent female cast members, about which Walters is good-natured, because that is what one is supposed to be in the face of SNL’s redundant ideas of humor.

Some will always regard Walters as the woman who asked Katharine Hepburn what sort of tree she’d like to be.

That tree question? That weirdo Hepburn brought it up! Said she sometimes felt like a tree.

What kind of a tree? Walters asked. Isn’t that what a listener does?

Too late. Walters became the Baba Wawa who asks people to imagine being trees. So began our official disdain for the big TV interview, which we always watched anyhow.

When she goes, others will fill in. There is no shortage of TV and multimedia outlets inviting the famous and infamous to sit upon new sofas and tell us how they feel.

But with Walters’ departure, we are losing one of TV’s more neutral listeners. We’re also losing one of TV’s dwindling safe spaces. Walters may have gone softer over time, but do not underestimate the worth of a safe space in a culture that now seems to prefer satirical ridicule and constant interruption as a form of conversation.