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Elizabeth Vargas: Tuning In At The Top

By Elinor J. Brecher

June, 2002
Copyright © 2002

PHOTO: ABC Reporter/Anchor Elizabeth Vargas

Elizabeth Vargas may still have to use her last name, but she’s just as busy and visible as Barbara, Diane and Katie.

Turn on ABC most days and you’ll see the Emmy Award-winning reporter/anchor broadcasting live from the war-torn Middle East, serving up an absorbing feature on 20/20, in the anchor chairs of World News Tonight/Saturdays and 20/20 Downtown, waking up the Good Morning America audience, and occasionally sitting in for Peter Jennings.

If there’s a big story, expect to find Vargas in the middle of it: the World Trade Center attacks. Elián González. The Brothers to the Rescue shootdown. The JonBenet Ramsey case.

"That’s the most important thing, being where the news is happening," she says. "I want to be where the action is."

Even if that means spending half the year on the road or in the air. Even if it means facing 40 in September wanting a husband and children, but never staying in one place long enough to make it happen.

"It’s hard when you’re a professional woman to have a personal life," she sighs.

But professionally, it’s hard to imagine a life that’s more exciting–even if that widely circulated rumor didn’t pan out in 1997: that she would replace Joan Lunden as Good Morning America host.

The stories she has reported since graduating from local to national television in 1993 are a comprehensive chronicle of American cultural history in time of seismic social change and spectacular crimes.

Often, they make news themselves. Last year, for instance, she interviewed the owners of two vicious dogs charged in the mauling death of a San Francisco neighbor. During the conversation, defendant Marjorie Knoller appeared arrogant and remorseless as Vargas pressed her for answers.

In one chilling interchange, Vargas asked Knoller if she felt responsible for the attacks.

Knoller: "I wouldn’t say that it was an attack. And I did everything that was humanly possible to avoid the incident. Ms. Whipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment."

Vargas: "But can you understand why people might say you were unable to control this large dog, larger than the victim? The victim is dead after a several-minutes-long attack."

Knoller: "I understand that, but I was the one who was on top of Ms.Whipple. I was being bitten as well by the dog."

It was a typical Vargas performance: tough, sharp and persistent, yet calm, measured and polite. The prosecution showed the piece repeatedly during their trial and the family of victim Diane Whipple, who was torn apart by the dogs, credited Vargas with helping convict Knoller of murder.

Vargas has had plenty of other scoops. She was the first to get Ross Perot to admit he was planning to run for president. A former Boulder detective gave her an exclusive interview detailing evidence he claimed pointed to JonBenet Ramsey’s mother as a suspect in the little beauty queen’s unsolved murder. Suspects in the Yosemite National Park murders talked to her.

Her hundreds of profiles and interviews have run the gamut: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The Bachelor’s Alex Michel. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Seventies folk-rocker-turned-Muslim Cat Stevens. Posthumously, the heroin-addicted supermodel Gia Carangi and the troubled heiress Doris Duke.

Her special reports have uncovered evidence that the old East German government routinely drugged its top athletes, and revealed the determination of heartbroken Minnesota housewife Patty Wetterling to find her son, Jacob, who disappeared in 1989.

She has delved into breast cancer research, the aggressive anti-fur campaign by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, sexual surrogacy and same-sex marriages.

Vargas credits her wide-ranging interests to an "insatiable curiosity" and a background that might seem counterintuitive for a television personality.

"I grew up completely without TV," she says. "We were all avid readers." When aspiring journalists ask for her advice, she tells them "read, read, read."

She comes from a family of veteran globetrotters, so it’s no wonder she is comfortable living out of a suitcase. Her father–whose own father moved to the United States from Puerto Rico–was an Army officer who moved the family to bases all over Europe and the United States: Stuttgard; Frankfurt; Heidelberg, where Vargas, a competitive gymnast, graduated from an American high school; Brussels; Okinawa; Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana; Fort Leavenworth in Kansas; and the Presidio in San Francisco.

How her mother, a part-time English teacher, coped, Vargas still doesn’t understand.

While her husband, Ralf, was serving in Vietnam, Anne Vargas was raising two preschoolers. While she was pregnant.

"She held it together" on a base in Japan, Elizabeth Vargas says admiringly. "I don’t know if I could be that strong."

Her mother says that the "nomad life" served her children well, showing them first hand at a young age that "there’s more to the world than the backyard of a small town."

Vargas says she wouldn’t trade her youth for anything in the world. "A lot of families never leave the bases, but I was exposed to so much."

"Family," she says, "was the only constant when I was growing up. Every single other thing changed. Family is so important in so many Latin cultures. My father was relentless about that."

Vargas was born in Patterson, New Jersey, where her parents spent about a year while her father studied for an MBA. English is her first language, though she now speaks fluent Spanish and serviceable French.

Her career path took shape early. In high school, she decided on journalism. At the University of Missouri, she settled on broadcasting after a stint as reporter/anchor for KOMU-TV.

She spent a year at KTVN-TV, the CBS affiliate in Reno, moved on to KTVK-TV, the ABC affiliate in Phoenix, then WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago.

"In journalism, you bang around and learn lessons the hard way. [The] most valued lesson I learned is that it’s OK to not know."

Edward Marshall is executive producer of special projects at WBBM, which boasts an impressive roster of alumni, including Giselle Fernández (former Access Hollywood host, now at KTLA in Los Angeles and The History Channel). He was assignment editor during Vargas’s stint at the Chicago station.

Vargas "did everything well," he recalls. "She’s a good writer, live reporter and anchor. She really took ownership of a story once she was on it."

She did her "best work" at WBBM live on the scene of a devastating tornado in Plainfield, Illinois, in August 1990, which killed 30 people.

"She really distinguished herself. You can’t prepare for those things, but she handled it effortlessly without being breathless. She was on the scene all night and next morning."

Marshall isn’t surprised that Vargas made the big time.

From Chicago, Vargas went to NBC News. She joined the network in 1993 as a correspondent for the NBC news magazine, Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric.

For the next three years, she worked as a correspondent and anchor, mostly for Dateline NBC and the Today show, and served as a substitute NBC Nightly News on the weekends.

When Vargas joined NBC, she was one of the few Hispanics in network news. She still is. "Being a Hispanic journalist is always as much a part of you as being a woman," she says. "You have to be the best reporter in the newsroom."

Vargas’s visibility buoys other Hispanic women in television.

"I remember thinking: a Vargas on TV–that’s awesome!’ " says Belkys Nerey, a Cuban-American TV reporter and entertainment-show host in Miami. "It fills you with pride when you see a name like that."

Of course, it once filled viewers with other emotions. Earlier in her career, Vargas got "rude letters" suggesting that she "go back to Mexico."

"I was so taken aback by that. I replied and said, ‘And by the way, my family is from Puerto Rico.’ "

Though her father is Spanish and Italian, her mother Irish/German/Swedish, Vargas identifies closely with her Hispanic side. So do her siblings: sister Amy, who works in high tech in San Francisco, and brother Christopher of Silicon Valley, part of a group of "leading Hispanic CEOs in the Internet business," according to Vargas.

Yet that identification isn’t automatic entry into all news events involving Hispanics. When Vargas was in Miami covering the Elián González case, she realized her view of the situation was "far more personal and less political, the story of a boy and his father," than some in the South Florida Cuban American community defined it.

"Cuban Miami is a community that believes fervently, and when you’re not part of it, it might be hard to understand."

When she’s off camera, Vargas, an avid jogger and skiier, goes informal on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: no makeup, in sweatpants.

She’s been linked romantically with such disparate types as actor Michael Douglas and country-blues singer Lyle Lovett. Her current beau is singer/songwriter Marc Cohen (Walking in Memphis), who has two children.

Not long ago, ABC dispatched her to the U.S.S. Roosevelt, on duty in the Middle East. Once again, a reporting experience connected to her personal roots.

"Because I’m the daughter of a man who put his life on line, it really gave me strong feelings. It’s so moving, how these young people are willing to die for their country. I was so moved by their dedication."

The military flight from New York to Bahrain was a flying dumpster with no bathroom. "I called Marc from my hotel room: ‘Why did I do this?’"

But Vargas knows exactly why she does such things like jumping out of airplanes and swinging from a helicopter in a rescue litter. "Because it’s an adventure."

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