December 21, 2005
On Jan. 2, ABC will make history.
Elizabeth Vargas will join Bob Woodruff as co-anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight," thereby marking the first time a Latina will co-host the nightly news program of a major network. It is long overdue.
Born to a Puerto Rican father and Irish-American mother, Vargas had been co-anchoring ABC's "20/20" with John Stossel for the last several years and developed a reputation for covering controversy. She raised the ire of religious groups with a report on the theory raised by the book "The Da Vinci Code" that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute but Jesus' wife.
At the height of the media frenzy about the disappearance of California housewife Laci Peterson, she brought up the stories of two women, one black and one Hispanic, who were missing at the same time and got no media attention and no search parties. When one of the experts on the show was asked why this was true, Vargas got him to say that "Laci Peterson was a beautiful, attractive, white, well-off girl who disappeared."
Vargas also won an Emmy for her reporting on the story of Elián González, the young boy who was forced to return to Cuba from Miami in 1999.
Vargas will be a welcome face -- and a source of pride -- for millions of Hispanic viewers, who increasingly prefer their news in English.
But the fact that Vargas will also be a Latina commenting on stories that involve Hispanics will be something of a rarity. Of the 131 stories about Latinos that aired in 2003, Latino reporters presented only nine stories, according to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. What's more, not a single Latino anchored the evening newscasts during the broadcast of any Latino-related story.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Vargas's ascension to the co-anchor chair is the way it signals the end of an era in network news coverage.
With increasing rumors that CBS is trying to sign NBC's Katie Couric to anchor its nightly newscast, it's becoming clear that the networks are finally breaking with the tradition of exclusively choosing older white males to be the lead voice of their broadcasts.
Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather have all left the air within the past year, and it appears the networks are taking this opportunity to significantly change the face of the evening news gatekeeper.
By naming Elizabeth Vargas to a permanent position as co-anchor, ABC is finally letting a Latina tell America what's new every evening.
Not only is Vargas's new status empowering for Latino viewers, her unique insight into a community that has more than 40 million members will create a clearer, more informed picture of America's largest minority group.
Ed Morales is a contributor to The New York Times and Newsday in New York, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.