The real story behind Elizabeth Vargas' departure.

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May 25 2006 5:42 PM

Pregnant Pause

What's the real story behind Elizabeth Vargas' departure from World News Tonight?

Does anyone else out there find it strange that the media is treating Elizabeth Vargas' demotion as ABC's nightly news anchor as a complex triple tragedy of tanking ratings, job loss, and pregnancy?

Here is the Washington Post, describing the replacement of a "pregnant woman with an older, more experienced man." Here is the New York Times describing Vargas feeling " 'an enormous amount of sadness' that a job to which she had aspired for sometime had slipped from her grasp." Everywhere, Vargas' pregnancy, her second, is linked to the end of her career.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

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But—and here's where the story gets sort of interesting—everyone is spectacularly and explicitly clear that Vargas was not forced from behind the anchor's desk; she asked for it: She explains that it's been a "difficult pregnancy" and the doctors have ordered her to ramp it down. She is quoted as saying that, "Every woman has the right to make that decision for herself and her family without anybody judging it. …  It's just what's right for me now. …  I would hesitate to draw any large conclusions about working women or working mothers."

Of course that is just what everyone is racing to do. We are desperate to draw large conclusions about working women and mothers—our bookshelves are groaning under the weight of those broad conclusions and sweeping theories. So why not use Vargas as a litmus test for it all?

Vargas had planned to take six months off and return to the show after the birth of her child in August. So, what's different now? The bonus explanation here is that, again according to Vargas: "I'd have a hard time thrusting my baby at my husband or baby nurse and saying, 'I'll see you guys in two weeks, I'm going to a war zone.' " That's fair, although she did tell the Philadelphia Inquirer in February that she "fully anticipates going back to Iraq soon after the baby is born" and told The Dallas Morning News in March that, "Once I give birth, everything will go back to being what it was. Is it more challenging for the first few months with a newborn child? Sure. But is it impossible? Absolutely not."

A smart blog post at Belle Lettre queries: "Does it seem like Elizabeth Vargas amended her career plans and parenting philosophy only very recently? I wonder if she changed her mind (which she is entitled to do of course) or whether ABC effectively changed it for her."

Most of the news accounts go to great pains to explain that in fact all this is about bigger things than Vargas' belly: ABC recently slipped into third place in the evening news ratings; the experiment with Vargas and her co-host, Bob Woodruff, as the younger, hipper anchors failed when Woodruff was injured in Iraq and Vargas was left to carry the show all alone; the networks are all bracing for the September descent of Katie Couric at CBS. All plausible. And yet every account also mentions Vargas' looming pregnancy. If this was just a business decision, why cloud it with a great big dogfight about breeding women in the media?

In light of all these confused messages, it's hardly surprising to hear from incensed media experts, all of whom are worried about the gender signals ABC is sending. The Washington Post quotes Andrew Tyndall, a "consultant who studies evening news content" saying that ABC is sending the absolute wrong message to young women: "What is the worst workplace nightmare the pregnant employee faces? It is the fear that her employer will find some way not to guarantee her job back on return from maternity leave."

Carol Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, tells the Boston Herald that, "It does send a worrisome signal. … a message to all women taking maternity leave that you missed your shot." And Joan Vennochi over at the Boston Globe today says that, "ABC's decision to turn the pregnant Elizabeth Vargas into a short-timer brought back that old feeling of vulnerability, mixed with anger at the perpetrator," that came with her own decision to be pregnant in a newsroom 17 years ago.

Bill McLaughlin, a former CBS correspondent who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University, takes pretty much the opposite tack: Good riddance to All Things Frilly. He tells the Baltimore Sun: "It's a smart move and about time. … Gibson is an excellent choice, and having him start three months before Katie Couric is probably a good strategy. Gibson is a solid newsman, old school, nothing frilly or fancy. The contrast with Couric will be stunningly obvious."

What everyone is talking around are some of the same issues we didn't talk about last year during the brief national flip-out over the dearth of women columnists in major newspapers. Somewhere between the insanity of the assertion that a pregnant woman asked to be benched permanently from a major news show (for her second child but not her first), the bland media assertions that the pregnancy was a convenient smoke screen for legitimate business decisions, and the overreaction from advocates and feminists who see this as brazen discrimination, there may even be some snippets of truth.

At the core of all this chatter is also an interesting and unspoken problem about pregnancy and maternity, and the ways in which women who are fully competent to do any job at any other time may nevertheless falter or choose to rejigger their priorities for a few years. There were days during my pregnancies when I couldn't even rinse and spit, much less cover a major news story. When do you think I'll be allowed to write that without setting back the feminist cause?

Everyone is turning Elizabeth Vargas' pregnancy into a referendum on pregnant women in the workplace, and particularly in the media, because it's happening on a big screen in front of us, but also in our homes and our book groups. Vargas isn't just carrying the extra weight of her unborn baby here; she's carrying the weight of a whole nation of people who still see gender in absolute and defining terms. Maybe the reason we can't quite stomach a hugely pregnant news anchor is that we can't even manage to talk coherently about all the ways in which they somehow freak us out.