The usually-celebrity-fixated Barbara Walters told the New York Post yesterday that she voluntarily passed on Paris Hilton's first post-hoosegow interview because "The whole thing somehow was beneath me.":
"Look, I've done prison interviews before, but people like the Menendez Brothers were really important news stories," said the First Lady of the Soundbites. "This wasn't. And even though I'd already written my questions, when all that pay-for-play stuff happened, I suddenly felt this was not up to my standard. It...felt...sort of...tawdry. The whole thing somehow was beneath me. Besides, it was a no-win. If I did a tough piece and her tears started to flow, it would be, 'Oh, there's Barbara Walters making people cry again.' Too soft, and I'd be criticized."
"And ABC's position?," asked the Post's Cindy Adams:
"They wanted it. For them it was ratings. For me it was respect. I'm fortunately at a point in my life where I can choose what I want, and this was solely my decision. But I must tell you how classy ABC was. They didn't try to force me or say they'd place it on Nightline, or give it to someone else to do or any of the things they could have done. They respected my decision and walked away.
"Some agreed with my decision, some didn't. For me it was just a question of respect."
A couple of questions for Walters: That's so very journalistically upstanding, Barbara, but if Hilton is really "beneath you" now, how come you've gabbed about her non-stop all year on The View -- and not critically, either? Why wasn't it "beneath you" to make a big, on-air fuss about the famous-for-doing-nothing heiress calling you from the pokey? Why wasn't doing those segments on The View about how Paris's mom (your friend Kathy Hilton) is such a wonderful parent also "beneath you"?
Oh, and more importantly, why isn't it "beneath you" to lie about ratings? Last week, I wrote on WIMN's Voices about Barbara Walters using fuzzy math to mislead those who care about such things into thinking that The View's ratings have been up since Rosie O'Donnell has left the show.
Friday, unfortunately, The New York Times furthered Walters' and ABC's ratings distortion in an article headlined, "Without O'Donnell, View Keeps Its Viewers." The Times cites a 16 percent increase in View-ership since Rosie left as compared with the same period of time last year, before she joined the show, while failing to mention that, as TV Guide noted, current viewership is actually "down some 10 percent when compared to O'Donnell's final week on the show -- the context within which Walters purported to be speaking." Way to carry water for ABC, grey lady. What a ridiculous thing to help a network lie about.
As for Walters' assertion that she decided against the interview "when all that pay-for-play stuff happened," here's the likely translation: "when all that pay-for-play stuff was leaked and I started to look sleazy, I bailed."
Walters can put on her more-ethical-than-thou "Responsible Journalist" hat where payola is concerned, but it just doesn't fit her anymore. It hasn't since 2000. Back when I was working as the Women's Desk director at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, we put out what became an annual documentation of instances of ethical missteps, bias, inaccuracy and imbalance in the journalism. Published in the May/June 2001 issue of Extra! magazine, Fear & Favor 2000: How Power Shapes the News included this tidbit about Barbara Walters literally singing for her supper on her daytime talker:
"ABC's The View, co-hosted by Barbara Walters, agreed to turn eight shows into paid infomercials for Campbell's Soup.
"Walters, one of ABC's most prominent news personalities, joined her colleagues in introducing pro-Campbell's themes into the talkshow's discussions: In one show, Walters asked her View colleagues, 'Didn't we grow up...eating Campbell's Soup?' They responded by breaking into a chorus of the 'M'm! M'm! Good!' jingle. In addition to developing special soup segments, The View assured Campbell's that 'hosts would try to weave a soup message into their regular on-air banter' (Wall Street Journal, 11/14/00).
"ABC claims this kind of hucksterism is OK because The View is an entertainment show. Though Walters is an ABC News journalist, she is 'able to wear many hats' (Wall Street Journal, 11/14/00)."
Too bad one of those hats doesn't read "Ethical Journalist" after all. So much for what is and isn't "beneath" her...
This post originally appeared at WIMN's Voices: A Group Blog on Women and the Media, a project of Women In Media & News, the national women's media analysis, education and advocacy group. To bring Jennifer L. Pozner to speak to your campus or community group, or to send her blog tips, email info [at] wimnonline [dot] org. To subscribe to WIMN's free media alert list, see the Action Center here.