Editor’s Note: Alisyn Camerota is a journalist, author and anchor of CNN Newsroom with Victor Blackwell, weekdays from 2-4pm. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
Whenever people ask me about the moment I decided to become a broadcast journalist, I explain that it happened in utero.
My mother, nine months pregnant with me, was watching Barbara Walters on the “Today” show one morning when she had an epiphany: That looks like an interesting and exciting job. I wonder if my future child might do that.
Though my mother never shared that story with me until after I’d found my own way to journalism, I believe that somehow, as she watched Walters, a seed was planted and an idea took root.
It’s hard for me to imagine a time before Walters, who died Friday at 93. When I was 15, I had my own epiphany about how cool TV news looked. By then, Walters had been doing it for 20 years, demonstrating to young women everywhere that our dreams of being TV reporters could become reality. It was only years later that I learned how Walters had wielded a machete to weed-whack her way through a lonely, uncharted forest, clearing that path for the rest of us.
On my first day of college, 200 eager freshmen sat in an auditorium, listening to the dean of the school of communications give us a reality check with sobering statistics about our competitive field. “I know you all want to be network anchors,” she said, “but look around this room. At most, only two of you will ever make it.” I craned my neck to see who the other person could be. It never occurred to me that I might not achieve my dream. After all, Barbara Walters had done it.
The next four years were filled with cautionary tales about my career path. Women in TV news had to make a choice, it was said: family or career. And in the 1970s and ’80s, the rigors of breaking into journalism and field reporting did force many women to forgo having families.
Walters herself has spoken candidly and poignantly about all she had to give up – she suffered miscarriages and failed marriages. But her biggest regret, she revealed in a 2014 interview with ABC, was not spending more time with her daughter. Her job simply did not allow for family flexibility.
A generation later, my colleagues and I who juggle childcare responsibilities with career demands owe a huge debt of gratitude to Walters. It’s a heck of a lot easier to walk in and get what you want after someone else has kicked down the door.
By the time I graduated with a journalism degree, there was a general understanding that women in TV news were on borrowed time. Though it wasn’t explicitly spelled out in job interviews, we all understood we had a shelf life and somewhere in our late 40s, we’d hit our expiration date. If, miraculously, I was lucky enough to stay employed until the ripe age of 50, I assumed I’d be unceremoniously dragged from the anchor desk, plopped in a wheelchair and handed some knitting needles on my way to the retirement home.
Then, Walters turned 84. On TV. Still co-hosting “The View.” She had refused to go gently out to pasture – and in staying put, she gave the rest of us faith that we could continue to work at any age as well.
The last time I saw Walters in person was at her “retirement” luncheon, which virtually everyone in attendance considered a joke. Yes, she was officially retiring from “The View” but her colleagues knew she would continue to produce behind the scenes. I watched Walters as she entered the room that day, a bundle of elegant energy in a bright designer suit, swarmed by her friends and staff. I was star struck but managed to catch her attention just long enough to blather something about how I was a huge fan of her work. She graciously thanked me, then breezed on by, and I realized I’d missed an opportunity.
What I should have said was thank you. Thank you, Barbara Walters. Thank you for breaking boundaries and shattering the glass ceiling. Thank you for making sacrifices – and talking openly about them – so the rest of us could listen and learn. Thank you for allowing my mother long ago to see a role model that her future daughter could follow. And thank you for blazing that trail and leaving it well-lit, making my journey that much easier.
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