Elizabeth Vargas, Exiting Stage Center

The anchor says maternity leave would have disrupted ABC's
The anchor says maternity leave would have disrupted ABC's "World News Tonight." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

Elizabeth Vargas says she's at peace with her decision to walk away from one of the highest-profile jobs in America. But not everyone is so thrilled about it, especially some women.

Vargas, 43, stepped down as the co-anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight" on Friday, three days after ABC announced that she would leave the broadcast and be replaced by "Good Morning America" co-host Charles Gibson starting today. ABC and Vargas said her unexpected departure was a result of the demands of the job -- and the demands of being the mother of a 3-year-old, with another child due this summer. "For now, for this year, I need to be a good mother," she said in an interview on Friday, a few hours before anchoring her last newscast.

But the announcement has been met with a mixture of disappointment and skepticism in some quarters. Some observers found the news curious, given that Vargas will return to another demanding, but less visible, job -- co-anchor of the weekly newsmagazine "20/20" -- after she gives birth to her second child.

What's more, critics question whether Vargas's departure after less than six months as an anchor was entirely voluntary, given declines in "World News Tonight's" ratings and considering that Vargas already had experienced the challenges of balancing work and family years before she became pregnant a second time.

"It seems unlikely to me, having survived and thrived through her first pregnancy, that she would logically give up the top job in TV a few months out, anticipating she couldn't handle it," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "It just doesn't strike me as a logical explanation. I don't think there are too many men who would be happy to be removed from the anchor chair."

Gandy added that ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., "doesn't look like a very woman-friendly or family-friendly workplace."

An ABC News spokesman defended the network, saying it has accommodated several mothers of young children, including anchors Cynthia McFadden of "Nightline," Kate Snow of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America" and Vargas herself.

NOW has joined with two other prominent women's organizations to protest Vargas's departure. In a letter that will be sent today to ABC News President David Westin and Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney, the organizations call Vargas's status "a clear demotion" and characterize it as "a dispiriting return to the days of discrimination against women that we thought were behind us."

In addition to Gandy, the letter is signed by Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Susan Scanlan, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, an umbrella group that represents organizations with about 10 million members.

The letter suggests Vargas's job change is parallel to ABC's cancellation of "Commander in Chief," a fictional program featuring Geena Davis as the first female president. The network has "now managed to eliminate two of the country's most visible women role models and high achievers from your television lineup," the letter says. It urges ABC to create work arrangements that would enable Vargas to continue as the network's "World News Tonight" anchor and as a mother, perhaps by pairing her in a job-sharing or co-anchoring role with Diane Sawyer. Sawyer, the co-host of "Good Morning America," reportedly was passed over for the "World News Tonight" anchor job last year.

"This seems like a big march backward" for women in the workplace, said Kathy Bonk, an adviser to the women's groups. "Something has to give here. There are job-sharing options, there are many ways to accommodate women. This workforce has to change."

Vargas said she appreciates the work of the women's groups in general, but that her situation was unusual and complicated -- and not only because she's the first person to become pregnant while serving as a network's lead anchor.

Her circumstances changed dramatically in January when her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, was severely injured during a reporting trip to Iraq. (Woodruff hasn't returned to work and will also be replaced by Gibson.) This forced Vargas to shoulder all of the anchor duties.

Her pregnancy, she said, was another unexpected event. Vargas said her first child was delivered after an emergency Caesarean section three years ago; she'll undergo a scheduled C-section for her second ("I know -- too much information!"). That will mean at least six to eight weeks of maternity leave, which Vargas said creates a long period of discontinuity for viewers and for "World News Tonight's" staff.

As a practical matter, anchoring the news five days a week demands more time and more unscheduled travel than co-anchoring the weekly "20/20," which has a more predictable pace, she said.

Asked if her situation is comparable to Katie Couric's, Vargas said no because Couric's children are older, 11 and 13 years old. "It's a very different set of circumstances," Vargas said. Couric, who will take over as anchor of "CBS Evening News" in September, continued to co-anchor NBC's "Today" show after her husband's 1998 death left her a single mother.

Vargas acknowledged that it's "a struggle" for working mothers to balance work and family obligations, but added, "I don't think there are a lot of lessons to be drawn from my example because this is a unique job. You can't leave the audience wondering who's in charge for weeks or months, and you can't not give 150 percent to a staff and a team who are so enormously dedicated."

But that still leaves NOW's Gandy unsatisfied. "If she can't have it all," she said, "who among us could?"

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