When I was beginning on the Today show, there was one female writer. And no other female writer could be hired unless that one died or got married. When I got that job, I was only allowed to write “female things.” I could do fashion shows. I could do celebrity interviews. When I finally was put on the air, it was with Hugh Downs, and he was a pleasure. But later, to give you an idea of the times, there was a host named Frank McGee. He had an agreement with the network that if there was a hard-news interview, he asked the first three questions before I could join in. The real reason I became very aggressive in going after interviews is, if I got the interview myself, and I did it outside the studio, I could do it myself.
In 1976, when I came to ABC, there was all the hoopla about my making one million dollars a year for doing the news. It was considered practically a crime. But actually, I was getting $500,000 for co-hosting ABC News (the same salary Harry Reasoner was getting) and $500,000 from the entertainment department, for doing four one-hour prime-time specials. It was the bargain of the year for them! Those specials have been on for 21 years now, and they’ve made a fortune for ABC. But we news people were considered so pure. To give you some perspective, Mike Douglas was making something like $10 million that year while I was making $1 million, and nobody criticized him.
Then there was the question of my being the first female co-host of a news program, and there were all those stories about me. How I had a pink typewriter. I mean, what are they, insane? And that I had a bookcase taken in through the window. I mean, I have a nice office. Hugh Downs has a bigger one, and I’m happy for him. I’m not going to die over this. What did I do that was so terrible? But there was all this terrible stuff, stuff that I know, in my heart, would not have happened had it been a man. Imagine it happening to Ed Bradley or Mike Wallace. In retrospect, though, it probably was a very good thing; I remember going to Poland, and people knew who I was: “Oh! She’s the one who got the million dollars!” So in a silly way, it made me famous way beyond America.
There is also the business of the celebrity interview. A lot of critics who don’t watch 20/20 (and let me tell you, they don’t) think, “Oh, she’s this celebrity interviewer.” They don’t realize that in the course of nineteen years on 20/20, I can count the number of celebrity interviews I’ve done. My work there is far more substantial. They don’t see the body of my work. After I interviewed Marv Albert, for example, I was criticized for doing it, yet many other programs had him on after me. Some newspaper people who criticized me, saying, “How could she do that?” seemed to forget their own newspapers carried the story on page one. I know that there are critics who like my work and critics who will never like my work. And I try not to read the things that are destructive, because it hurts me and I’m not above the hurt. None of us are.
We’re not going out to exploit people. I don’t force people to do interviews. We ask them; they have time to think about it. They have reasons for wanting to go on. I think to do an interview with Monica Lewinsky’s cousin’s dog is ridiculous. You don’t see me trying to become the best friend of the son of the murderer’s brother-in-law. I never ambush anybody. I don’t blame the reporters who do, because that’s the way you get stories. But I don’t. People think I have all the guts in the world, but it’s hard for me to pick up the phone. I hate it.
When I was interviewing Sadat and Begin, and Castro, there was a different atmosphere in this country; people were anxious to see these men – and women, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. They were larger than life. Now, in terms of a magazine program, nobody much cares. The first special I did for ABC had Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters and President-elect and Mrs. Carter. The second one we did had the Shah of Iran. The third one had Vice-President Mondale. And what we found is that as soon as we got away from the movie stars, the ratings went down. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s what we found. It’s like everybody says they listen to Mozart, but they buy rap. So, little by little, on the specials, we began to do mostly superstars. What is so wrong with doing interviews with celebrities? There are more and more entertainment programs because that’s what people want. I don’t think this is such a hideous thing.
The only misconception is that I’m so driven, and how that’s all I do: work and work and work. I have a very strong private life. I have little family except my daughter; my friends are enormously important to me. If I complain sometimes, it’s when I don’t have enough time for my private life. I think that’s important, because there’s still this view of a woman who works: There’s no other life! You’re always on planes! You’re always working! And nobody says that about men.
But in general, I’m very peaceful with myself. It sounds terrible. I’m supposed to have a lot more neuroses. I’d love to be able to tell you I’m driven, unhappy, that my private life is a mess, that there’s another mountain to climb. But I am happy; I’ve climbed all the mountains. This plateau is very nice. I don’t know how long I’ll stay on it before I’ll want to climb down a little bit and plant some trees. But not yet.
Interviewed by Jennifer Senior