20/20's Elizabeth Vargas On Fake News, Barbara Walters, & Being A Woman On The Air

Every Friday evening for the past 14 years, Elizabeth Vargas, the co-anchor of ABC's weekly news magazine program 20/20, has appeared on your television screen with a story to tell. In many cases, that story has been part of a larger, important dialogue happening in the country at the moment, like in 2015, when 20/20 gave Caitlyn Jenner an exclusive platform to express her transition story, and sparked a nationwide discussion on gender identity. In the past month alone, 20/20 has aired in-depth pieces on the Las Vegas shooting, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and most recently, an investigation into ISIS' recruitment tactics.
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20/20 is currently celebrating its fortieth season on air. On the occasion of this significant milestone, we spoke with Vargas about being a news anchor during this era of political upheaval, the challenges of being a woman journalist, and the daunting experience of taking over for Barbara Walters.
You’ve been anchoring 20/20 since 2003. In your 14 years on the show, what story are you the proudest of?
"That’s like asking which of my children is my favorite. It’s really an impossible thing to answer. There are so many favorites. I did a whole hour about babies that were being adopted out of Cambodia by American families that weren't, in fact, orphans. Poor women in Cambodia had been tricked into giving their babies up for 15 dollars to an agency that said they would just take care of them for a while, and return the babies. They were adopting those babies out to American families and lying about it. The woman who was doing that went to prison. We were able to do some really amazing, emotional reunion with these now-grown American adolescents, or older kids, with their birth mothers in Cambodia. I loved that one. In a couple of weeks I have a story I’ve been working on for three years that I pitched, and that I love. It’s on the huge, phenomenal book called Wonder [by R.J. Palacio]. It’s about to be made into a movie.
"To be honest, the real answer is whatever story I’m working on at the time, for the most part, is my favorite story. If you weren’t authentically, genuinely interested and gripped by these stories, as a storyteller, you wouldn’t really be doing those stories a justice."
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It seems that the overarching theme of your answer is that 20/20 explores news issues so deeply. I was amazed by your coverage of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
"I went in the very first day that story broke and said we need to do this, because most of America didn’t read the New York Times article, or the New Yorker magazine article. None of the women were actually speaking at that point. Obviously, it’s become an enormous cultural moment. At that point, the story was only days old. You now see, in newspapers and on Twitter, people saying, 'Here’s a timeline. Here are all the names of all the women who say they were victimized, harassed, or even assaulted by Harvey Weinstein.' At that point, no one had done that. I felt it was important to put it all in a context: Here’s what all these people are saying happened. Here’s who this person was, and how powerful this person was. And by the way, many of your favorite movies, this person produced. My mom and dad watched that hour and were horror struck by the stories that were being told about this person. They were like, 'We loved Shakespeare in Love!'"
"I remember some people said it was too Inside Hollywood, people won’t be able to relate to it. I disagreed — and that’s been borne out in the amount of attention this story is now getting, and how it’s spread. People are hoping this is finally a cultural moment where people are going to wake up and say, 'How we treat women in general, in the workplace, needs to be examined, and needs to be rethought. Women deserve respect for who they are and what they do.'”
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Speaking of women in the workplace. What was taking the 20/20 reins over from Barbara Walters in 2004 like?
"That was very intimidating, to step into Barbara Walters’ shoes. She is a legend. She is a trailblazer for every woman who is on the air right now in my business. She is an icon. I didn’t replace her — I just started doing the job when she left the job, because there is no replacing her. Listen, I would’ve done this even if it hadn’t been Barbara Walters whose shoes I was filling. I’ve given this job my all for 13 years. It’s been an honor to have this job. And to work with this staff."
How do you choose which stories are important to tell?
"That’s an interesting question. They don’t always buy my pitches, I will say. They didn’t initially buy the Wonder pitch. There was an hour I did on two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, who were accused of sexually assaulting a high school girl who was so drunk she couldn’t remember anything about that night. I went in and pitched that story. And they said no. I kept at it. I kept saying, 'You don’t understand. This is The Accused meets The Blind Side meets The Social Network meets Friday Night Lights.' This was a small town in Ohio where football players were seen as little jobs in town. The population was 20,000, and they had a football stadium for the high school football team that held 17,000. That’s how big football was. These boys were the stars of not just the team, but of the town.
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"At any rate, it took a lot of convincing, but there were some really important issues there about consent and underage abuse of alcohol. And about boys getting special treatment because they’re football players. We got huge ratings for that hour, and it was a gripping, important hour on a very important topic. They didn’t at first buy it. But if you really believe in it, you pitch it."
You seen to have developed the intuition for finding the perfect story.
"If I’m moved by it and intrigued by it and struck by it, there’s a good chance the audience will feel the same way. In many cases, when I do my interviews, I feel like I’m the surrogate for my audience. What are they wondering? Does this answer make sense? What’s the follow-up question? If it strikes me, there’s a good chance it’ll strike members of the audience."
You anchored for events like the 2015 Paris terror attacks, and the Orlando nightclub shooting. In those moments, how do you get the story out there without letting your own emotions get in the way?
"Usually, for me, the hardest time to remain composed is when you’re talking to and interviewing someone who’s lost someone close to them. It’s very, very difficult. I’ve been doing that for 22 years here at ABC. I’ve been at the helm of the anchor desk during a lot of difficult, trying times, like 9/11. Our jobs are to stay focused as much as we can during those difficult times and focus on the information you’re trying to get out to people, that’s important and relevant. And try as best you can to do that job, with as much composure you can muster, in sometimes difficult times."
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What's it like to be an anchor during these political times? Do you feel pressure to remain impartial about your own beliefs?
"I think it’s my responsibility to keep my political views to myself, especially in this time when people are so polarized in what they believe and what they feel about what’s happening in this country. I’m not paid to tell what I think. I’m paid to tell the story. That means interviewing all sides of the story. It’s important to do your research. And it’s important to check your own views and opinions at the door. No one wants to hear my opinions. That’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to make sure everybody on every side of every story is asked the sometimes tough, pointed questions that need to be asked."
Sometimes it seems we’re being constantly inundated with news. How do you recommend we stay informed, and also stay balanced?
"I’m very, very careful with anything I read online. I can’t warn people enough about that. Don’t believe it just because you read it. Be sure you’re reading a reputable source. At ABC News and 20/20, when we put things on the air, it is vetted. It is vetted by lawyers, by standards, by journalists here who are dedicated to getting the facts right. There are many outlets out there that don’t have that level of scrutiny. That allow their reporters perhaps to have a political slant or bent. I think picking one forum and sticking with that and not getting a variety of outlets’ perspectives, you’ll miss out, perhaps, on the essential truth of things.
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"I was lecturing my kids jut the other night about a certain website they were citing. I told them this website has been known to get facts wrong. It doesn’t mean this fact was wrong. It means you have to check. While it’s exciting and wonderful to have access to so much right now at your fingertips, I would caution people to make sure you are delving in and checking the source of that information. And my gosh: Twitter and Facebook. People repeat things that are factually inaccurate all the time."
All the fake news that proliferates on social media must drive you nuts.
"It absolutely does. I mean, there’s fake news about me. There’s a lot of inaccuracies out there. As a journalist, it’s incumbent on us to really do our homework, and to really talk to all sides of the story, and explore every single angle, and get the backup that we need. There’s a lot — I don’t want to use the word fake news — but there's a lot of false information out there in the zeitgeist, online. It’s really incumbent on those of us who pride ourselves on getting the facts right to do the work to do that. To read. To get lots of different points of views, not just one point of view."
It's exciting to have a chance to feature such accomplished women on the site.
"It feel like we’re having a real cultural moment with women. The fact that, even in television news, I was reading somebody saying the other day — we women who are in front of the camera, we’re not fashion models. We’re journalists. We need to be valued for the work we do, not for the way we look. This business has been tough on women. Men get to age. Get wrinkles, go gray, gain weight. We’re very hard on women, culturally. It would be so wonderful if we could get to a point that’s, more, "Hey, it’s great to look your best, but you don't have to look like a movie star to do this job, or any other job, for that matter."
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Has the way you look been a vein that's run through your career?
"I think that there’s always that focus. I don’t know about other women in front of the camera but I can’t stand looking at myself on camera. It’s very hard. But you have to try and get some sort of perspective. You don’t want to look distracting. But I know that there seems to be, in some venues, by some people, this push that you have to be younger, or look like a beauty queen, to do television news. I would like to encourage women to embrace the — hopefully — new reality that you don’t have to look like a beauty queen. You’re a journalist. You’re not a fashion model. You’re here for your brain, hopefully. As well as the way you look. I’m not going to be ridiculous, that’s part of the job. But I hope that’s not the main part of the job. The only part of the job."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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