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Barbara Falters

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ABC News staffers still talk about an incident in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Walters—frustrated that she didn’t have a major role in the coverage while Diane Sawyer was doing live reports from ground zero—dressed down David Westin in front of colleagues. Offended, he immediately pulled her behind closed doors to hash things out. The result was an assignment to interview Mayor Giuliani.

Sawyer and Walters have always claimed to be great friends, though not credibly. Over the years, they’ve competed relentlessly for big gets, often scheming behind the scenes to undermine each other. The last time their head-butting became an issue, ironically, was in 2002, when Walters used The View to scoop Sawyer’s exclusive sit-down with O’Donnell, in which she was to come out publicly as a lesbian. On the day that Sawyer taped the interview, Walters got permission from O’Donnell to discuss her sexual orientation on the air. Sawyer wasn’t happy, and Walters was forced to acknowledge to reporters that she’d gone too far: “I am sensitive enough now as I look back to see how … it could look as if I was trying to harm Diane. This is not the evil axis. This is a little misunderstanding.” Sawyer, for her part, let Walters off the hook. “Barbara and I talked about that, and I am now completely relaxed about it.”

O’Donnell’s arrival in September—to replace the deferential Vieira as moderator—has been unquestionably a success. She has been credited with an over 20 percent hike in the ratings in the key 18-to-49 female demographic, which has fueled speculation about her bright future on daytime TV. Will ABC cash out Walters’s stake and retire her in favor of O’Donnell, who, after all, had her own very successful show from 1996 to 2002? The betting in Las Vegas at last month’s programming-executives convention was that O’Donnell will leave soon to launch her own show for either ABC or a major syndicator. At minimum, O’Donnell—who’s said to be pulling down nearly $3 million from The View, about twice what Vieira was paid—will likely be demanding a big raise.

Both Geddie and Brian Frons, the head of ABC Daytime, are uncomfortably in the dark about O’Donnell’s intentions. “I have absolutely no idea, I really don’t know,” Geddie says. “I hope she stays. I think we all hope she stays. I know there are many opportunities for her now.”

O’Donnell has done nothing to discourage speculation that she’s out to take over the show from the woman who invited her back to daytime TV. She’s been known to “slip up” and call The View “my show,” and she introduced a discount-clothing segment early this month with “It’s Budget Week on … um … The View. I almost said The Rosie O’Donnell Show. [Studio audience laughter.] That would have been a mistake!”

In recent weeks, with Walters and O’Donnell at opposite ends of the glass table, it has sometimes seemed like a power struggle. The day after the State of the Union address, O’Donnell called for the impeachment of President Bush, and a skittish Walters jumped in to short-circuit the discussion and steer it to a safer subject. “It’s called The View,” O’Donnell objected vehemently. “What are we supposed to do? Where do you want to move on to? The State of the Union just happened. What are we supposed to talk about?”

“Keep talking,” Walters muttered, giving up. And when O’Donnell, in another installment, went on an extended comic riff about one of Walters’s fancy dinner parties, Walters shot her what can only be described as a debutante’s death glare. For the record—in an e-mail to me—O’Donnell professes undying “love and respect” for Walters: “she is brave/full of knowledge and courage,” O’Donnell writes in her unpunctuated free verse, continuing:

i took the job because she asked me
she is a living legend
a woman who exceeded all expectations
back when women were not
suppossed [sic] to have any
i am a motherless daughter
i look for parents
in movie stars and math class
like always
i told her she hurt my feelings
by not reaching out to me personally
during the dump truck saga
she felt she had—by her press statement
and there it is …
like most moms and daughters
we made up
and love each other in the end
in spite of each of r faults

But she ignored my invitation to address “the insistent buzz that Disney could give you your own show and that Barbara will be bought out.”

And at Michael’s the day I ran into her, Walters was still playing her well-practiced game. With a seductive purr, she mentioned that she’d heard something “interesting” around the time I stopped writing a gossip column at the Daily News, which is owned by another of her pals, real-estate billionaire Mort Zuckerman.


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