“In this business,” said Elizabeth Vargas, the 42-year-old co-anchor of the ABC News magazine 20/20, “we’re way overdue on a woman sitting in one of those Big Three chairs.”
With her almond-hued hair in a wild, off-air frizz, Ms. Vargas was curled up in an easy chair in her dimly lit office, where she was considering the utter maleness of network anchordom. She was contemplating the rotating list of dudes offered as replacements for CBS News anchor Dan Rather, while Brian Williams settled his taut young haunches into Tom Brokaw’s comfy old chair at NBC News and Peter Jennings played out his long stay at her network, ABC. It was a rainy Monday evening, Dec. 6, and Ms. Vargas had a cold, sniffling a little, her hands cupping a coffee mug with Adaptation-last year’s Meryl Streep movie-printed on it, a burgundy lipstick smear on the rim.
“I’m amazed at how few times a woman’s name is mentioned,” she said. “I’m amazed that Diane’s name is the only one mentioned.” She meant Diane Sawyer. “And yet, any male reporter-’Oh yeah, he was on, I think, once.’ And it’s like: Wow, what happened to all of these award-winning women who’ve been anchoring network shows on other time periods successfully for years and years and years? I don’t get it.”
Ms. Vargas said that she hadn’t been phoned herself by CBS president Leslie Moonves. “I think they’re too busy calling Diane Sawyer,” she said. “Listen, I’m under contract, so even if they did call-I’m not available!”
In September, Ms. Vargas was cast as the replacement for ABC News’ grand dame, Barbara Walters, on 20/20, taking the seat to the left of the vociferous John Stossel. On the air, Ms. Vargas is more in the Diane Sawyer mold than the Barbara Walters mold. She is tough, sexy, sharp and unmistakably a star. Hardballs have the sting of Sharon Stone, softballs have the comfort of Sally Field. Ms. Vargas is a warm Latina in a world of icy blondes and sultry sharks. And once you’ve established her reporter’s bona fides, it’s also probably not unfair-after reading hundreds of acres of copy on Brian Williams’ Midwestern beauty-to note that she has the best lips in TV news, the kind that have you staring at them to see what might come out of them.
Monday evening, up to her chin in a woolen, olive-drab turtleneck, Ms. Vargas said she was determined to see a female network anchor in her lifetime. Of course, there was one once at ABC News, and her name was Barbara Walters.
But Ms. Vargas has already come up as a future replacement for Mr. Jennings should he decide to depart someday. And though Ms. Vargas was happily ensconced at 20/20 and reluctant to entertain thoughts of Mr. Jennings’ bon voyage-he’s a still-young 66-she was forthright: “When Peter decides he’s had enough,” she said, “I hope a woman will be considered for that position, whether it be me or Diane or somebody at this network who we don’t know yet, or Katie. I really hope that executives at CBS are seriously considering a woman. I think it’s due.”
Asked directly whether he could envision Ms. Vargas anchoring one day, ABC News president David Westin said through a spokesperson, “Absolutely.”
“We are very happy that Peter Jennings is firmly in place at the helm of World News Tonight for a long time to come,” he said through the spokesperson. “Nevertheless, we are fortunate to have any number of talented women who are experienced anchors in their own right, like Diane Sawyer and Elizabeth Vargas, among others. As you know, Elizabeth subs for Peter often, and I wouldn’t put her in that position unless I had enormous confidence in her abilities and future.”
Ms. Vargas’ profile has certainly been edging above the radar in recent months, as she’s reported on the facts and fictions behind The Da Vinci Code and scored an exclusive with Cat Stevens after his airport fiasco. On Nov. 26, she deconstructed the Matthew Shepard murder case, dissecting its muck of crystal-meth and sexual issues, eliciting confessions from the convicted murderers and their associates, and turning the story on its ear: Maybe it wasn’t a gay hate crime after all, she concluded, but a more ambiguous, crystal-meth-fueled act committed by sexually experimental youth. It earned her the enmity of some in the gay community. It also got terrific ratings, eight million viewers.
On Dec. 3, former Laramie police chief Dave O’Malley, who appeared in the segment, complained that he’d been lied to by Ms. Vargas about the nature of her story. He told a local newspaper in Laramie that after Ms. Vargas and the ABC News crew departed, he discovered e-mails they’d left behind describing “their preconceived focus that this was not a hate crime. This was a drug crime. That’s what they went with.”
Ms. Vargas denied that. “He was not lied to,” she said. “Look, we take great issue with that and we’re drafting a response.” She said she felt secure about her approach. “My executive producer was gay,” she said. “David Sloan, my executive producer, is quite active within the gay community. He’s won GLAAD awards in the past.” Nevertheless, GLAAD-the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation-issued a criticism of the segment, lambasting the credibility of the interview subjects, especially killer Aaron McKinney.
Ms. Vargas said she wasn’t as interested in the kind of celebrity interviews Ms. Walters conducted. But Ms. Vargas gave her credit for a broader journalistic career. “Listen, Barbara Walters specialized in newsmaker interviews,” she said. “Let’s not forget all the world leaders she grilled. Let’s not forget Fidel Castro and even Monica Lewinsky, as salacious a topic as that was.” But Ms. Vargas said she herself preferred live, breaking news. She has acted as a fill-in for Mr. Jennings on a number of occasions, as third-string evening anchor behind Charlie Gibson. On Sept. 11, 2001, she took over for Mr. Jennings at 2 a.m. after his 17-hour stretch on the air.
“I’m very small and Peter’s very tall,” she said, “and I was sitting in the chair and it was hiked all the way down, and basically I looked like a little girl coming in on Take Your Daughters to Work Day.” The weight of Mr. Jennings’ authority, she said, was palpable. “When you’re filling in for Peter, you feel a responsibility of living up to what a great job he does.”
After Ms. Walters announced that she would retire from 20/20, Mr. Stossel told NYTV in February 2004, “She’s going to be around until September,” referring to Ms. Walters. “After that, I want to do the show by myself.” It didn’t happen that way. Instead, ABC News president David Westin appointed Ms. Vargas to co-host.
When the announcement came, Mr. Stossel gave her a hug.
“We get along great,” she said. “We always have. We have actually socialized with them. I love his wife. If he really wanted that show all to himself and is mad that he didn’t get it all to himself, he’s been gentlemanly enough to keep it from me.”
Ms. Vargas lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, the singer-songwriter Marc Cohn, who won a Grammy Award and had a radio hit, “Walking in Memphis,” in 1991. She grew up an Army brat living primarily in Europe, without a television, and transferred an early passion for radio into a TV career starting in 1984. She bounced around to various affiliates until 1996, working on an NBC News magazine called The Now Show, hosted by Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric. NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker was the executive producer. “I had a lot to learn, and he took me under his wing and taught me,” she said.
Being a female who wants respect and authority in TV news is complicated, and Ms. Vargas knows something about that. On her door, she had a typewritten quote from Hunter S. Thompson, describing the TV business as “a cruel and shallow money trench … a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.”
“And that’s on a good day,” she said, laughing.
Ms. Vargas said she had been sexually harassed early in her career.
“It happened to me once in my career, and it happened to someone above me, and I was mortified,” she recalled. “And scared to death. Because if you don’t carefully, carefully, carefully handle it just the right way, you’re doomed.”
Ms. Vargas said she hadn’t been convinced either way on the sexual-harassment case brought against Bill O’Reilly by former Fox News producer Andrea Mackris. “I just remember reading about the whole thing and feeling like either she’s a tremendously unattractive person or she’s being incredibly wronged by a slam campaign, and it just made me want to take a shower every time I read an article,” she said. “But again, I have to say, I interviewed Bill twice on GMA. I’ve been on his show. Maybe it was aberrant, weird behavior-I don’t know.”
The secret weapon of the female anchor has long been the dramatic sit-down interview confrontation: 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl is able to abruptly crank up her bewitching, whiplash “C’mon, mister, don’t bullshit me” smile, while Ms. Sawyer has the ability to suddenly project the moral judgment of the viewer onto the interviewee.
Ms. Vargas, on the other hand, stressed the importance of staying detached. “The whole key is, when you’re doing your job-and a tip to people being interviewed-don’t take it personally,” said Ms. Vargas. “When you’re really angry, you stop thinking clearly.
“You’re not going to ask somebody like a Judy Shepard a horrible, mean question-why would you? She is the mother of a murder victim,” she continued. But an N.B.A. players’ representative defending a soft penalty for a player accused of rape? “‘Excuse me? What kind of penalty is a three-game suspension for raping a girl? Gimme a break! That’s like pocket change, that penalty!’ So then you can get more outraged. But you can never, ever feel it personally, because then you’re not doing your job well.”
Ms. Vargas said she “was hoping to get Condoleezza Rice as a profile, because I think she’s fascinating. Still hoping.” The country had already gotten its second female Secretary of State, so why wasn’t ABC News getting its second female anchor? “We trust Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric to give us the news in the morning,” said Ms. Vargas. “They are the queens of television in the morning …. They land all the biggest interviews and interview all the world leaders and they do it really well-so why can’t they do it at 6:30?”