On Wed., May 6, celebrity alumna and seasoned journalist Barbara Walters (‘53) taught an hour-long Master Class in the Canon Theater at Sarah Lawrence College. The Master Class, entitled “The Art of the Interview”, was attended by an intimate group of about 40 students concentrating in writing, journalism, and digital media. The small bunch of students were hand-selected by faculty to participate in this one-of-a-kind event.
The Master Class was conceived to honor Mrs. Walters’ generous $15 million donation for the future Barbara Walters Campus Center made earlier this year. Additionally, the event honored the legacy of Walters. She was the first female co-anchor of a network evening news program and single-handedly broke the glass ceiling for women in broadcast journalism.
Dean of the College Jerrilynn Dodds expanded upon how the Master Class came together: “The Master Class is an idea that Karen Lawrence and Barbara Walters have discussed for some time [...] We [the community] wanted for her to come so we could express our thanks for her extraordinary gift to the college—the largest gift the college has received,” she explained, “and we knew that [Walters] also wanted to connect with the students to whom she is so committed, and who are part of her legacy. That is the reason the Master Class was a natural event for this day.”
As the title would suggest, the Master Class focused on Walters’ famed interviewing style, and afforded those in attendance the opportunity to ask Walters questions about how she developed her craft as a journalist and receive advice on how to improve their own interviewing skills. Prior to the class, those invited were asked to submit their questions for Walters for review and compilation. Walters cleverly played off of this methodology of the class’s proceedings to impart her first lesson: “never give [the subject] your questions in advance!”
Despite breaking one of Walters’ interview rules before the Master Class even began, the event continued smoothly as starstruck students nervously approached the SLC legend to ask their questions. The first round of questions specifically dealt with interview techniques, and breaking the barrier between interviewer and subject. Walters advised students to start slow, easing the subject into a sense of comfort before going for the jugular. “Ask the benign questions first,” Walters instructed. “I always save the toughest questions for last.” More importantly, Walters stressed the importance of being prepared: “Homework, homework, homework is key,” she said.
For those just starting out in the journalism/media world, Walters gave encouragement to start at the bottom and work up from there. “I’ve always said get your foot in the door, that may be old-fashioned advice now. Get there before everybody, and stay there after everybody has left,” she said emphasizing the role of hard work and dedication in shaping a journalism career. “Everybody wants the glamour of being on camera, but you have to pay your dues first.”
Walters certainly did pay her own dues. Before she became an evening news anchor for ABC in 1976, Walters worked as a secretary and then as an assistant to the publicity director of WRCA-TV Tex McCary before landing a writing gig on The Today Show in 1961. From there, Walters lunged at every opportunity she could get. At first stuck covering women’s interest assignments only, Walters eventually proved herself and landed the responsibility of accompanying First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to India and Pakistan, earning her increased respect at the network.
The last of the prepared questions asked Walters about what she wants her impact on future journalists to be: “I want you to never be afraid,” she answered. Walters cited her experience at SLC as being fundamental in her development as a journalist. “The ability to learn how to think [...] and how to frame a question as well as not being afraid to ask it is what I learned from Sarah Lawrence,” she explained. Then, in a candid moment, Walters got up out of her chair and sang the classic SLC chant about her old dormitory in Titsworth: “My girl’s from Titsworth, she’s really down to earth, you get your money’s worth from progressive education!”
After the impromptu musical number, the floor was opened up for spontaneous questions from the audience and the conversation shifted to more contemporary issues facing the journalism field today. In the social media age, it is harder than ever to keep a reader, listener, or viewer’s attention and relate complicated news stories in a way that is simple and makes sense. “You have to give people some idea of what the situation is first, then ask the hard questions,” Walters advised the audience about reporting on tough issues. “You’re not telling the whole story. You can’t tell the whole story. You’re capturing the essence of it.”
Walters noted a recent shift away from hard-hitting news on broadcast programs to more fluffy, lighthearted, “fun” news. In one of the most poignant moments of the class, one audience member asked Walters about how she thinks women should navigate a journalism world where women are expected to be pleasant and mellow, to which Walters responded: “I just think women should do their job. Don’t be pleasant. Don’t be fun. Be a journalist.”
Following the Master Class, there was a reception at the Marshall Field music building. Guests walked through the doors and under a banner announcing a new tradition at SLC: from now on, May 6 will be Barbara Walters Day in honor of the school’s most famous alumna and her $15 million gift. In an extra show of gratitude, Anna Nemetz (‘17), Carrigan O’Brien (‘17), and Amaris Smith (‘17) sang for the crowd, followed by a short thank you video put together by SLC alumni featuring SLC students. Finally, Karen Lawrence took the podium to personally thank Walters and unveil the new plaque that will adorn the future Barbara Walters Campus Center. It was smiles all around as the room leapt to roarous applause in honor of SLC’s most distinguished and honored community member of all time.