Barbara Matusow Focused on TV's Anchors and Found Plenty of Faults Lay in the Stars

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

In 1968 NBC news trainee Barbara Matusow was assigned to cover a routine Congressional hearing. "There was a seat marked NBC," she remembers, "so I sat down and started taking notes. The next thing I knew, Roger Mudd came in and asked me for a fill-in. Roger Mudd was asking me what's happening," says Matusow. "I nearly died."

Now 45, Matusow is less intimidated by TV heavyweights. As a writer and producer who has worked for CBS, NBC and an affiliate of ABC, she became friendly with many newscasters, Mudd among them. But now many of those relationships may have been strained by her first book, The Evening Stars (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95), about the many men and one woman—Barbara Walters—who have served as daily network anchors since Douglas Edwards invented the job in 1948. Some CBS staffers said Mudd was abrasive and demanding, qualities Matusow shows may have contributed to his downfall at the network. Though Mudd has not commented on the book, his wife, E.J., says, "Roger was under the impression this was going to be a serious book. Instead, it tells about the acreage of our lawn."

In fact, The Evening Stars' 279 pages are so laced with gossipy detail that TV news people anxiously traded photocopies of the manuscript before it hit the stores. While she personally likes several of the anchors, Matusow found many of their colleagues un-blinkingly candid. They called Tom Snyder "an overgrown, undisciplined child" and even described sacred cow Walter Cronkite as "an air hog." Says Matusow, "Cronkite was a master of survival tactics." Tom Brokaw, she writes, has "the ability to hide his ambition better than Dan Rather." But she also frets that her book may have been too hard on Rather, who is painted as obsequious and fawning. "He may be a little smarmy," she has stated, "but under the smarm he's a really nice guy."

Ironically, it was her good relations with the evening stars that won Matusow the writing assignment. Her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, "auditioned" writers for the job in 1980. Matusow proved herself by obtaining interviews with Mudd, John Chancellor and Bob Schieffer. But after receiving a $75,000 advance, she quickly learned that even the most aggressive TV newsmen are extremely cautious as interviewees. "Dan Rather," Matusow says, "was freaked out by my tape recorder." ABC News czar Roone Arledge, she jokes, allowed the recorder—but slyly sat out of range 15 feet away.

Matusow had other sources among lower-level network employees, one of whom presumably leaked her a copy of an in-house ABC survey in which viewers called Walters, among other things, "stuck-up and extremely difficult to understand and follow." She also obtained a copy of Walters' 1976 contract. Among the revelations: Besides paying Walters more than $1 million per year, ABC had to decorate her office to exact specifications to please her.

The daughter of a Philadelphia lawyer, Matusow went to college at Penn State. She taught junior high school French and worked as a tour guide at the UN ("the most boring place on earth") before going to NBC as a radio writer. One of her first TV jobs was as an on-air reporter at CBS. "I simply didn't have the experience," Matusow says, "and it nearly destroyed me." After six months, she found a more comfortable slot as a writer, which led to a job producing the 6 o'clock news for ABC's affiliate in Washington. Nine years ago Matusow married Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times' Washington Bureau chief, and left TV to take up free-lance writing. The Evening Stars required her to "completely excuse myself from life. Jack learned to pick up the laundry and shop." Now the couple has resumed their normal activities, which sometimes include entertaining small groups of friends in their two-story brick home in northwest Washington and spending winter vacations on the island of St. Thomas. But the networks' talking heads are never far from her mind—nor she from theirs. Even though Barbara Walters calls the parts of the book pertaining to her contract "sludge" and inaccurate, she gives the author her due. Matusow, allows Walters, "obviously did her homework. And I found parts of the book fascinating."

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