Good Evening, and Good Night

The new ABC World News Tonight team has yet to make its mark.

A week into Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff’s tenure as the new anchor team for ABC World News Tonight, I see no reason to depart from my assertion last month that it doesn’t really matter who anchors the network news. So far, Woodruff and Vargas have come off as smooth, professional, and bland, indistinguishable from countless good-looking talking heads on the cable news channels. Neither of the two has even proffered a signature signoff line as of yet (though Vargas bid viewers farewell last Thursday with the oddly redundant “Have a good evening, and good night.”)

World News Tonight’s biggest innovation since the new year has been the decision to air a daily live West Coast edition of the show, which combines segments from the pretaped East Coast version with any breaking news that comes in after 6:30 p.m. ET. What’s not clear, as of now, is whether this tailored version will constitute a more “regional” broadcast, catering to the interests of West Coast viewers. Some stories that made it into the West Coast feed last week included Arnold Schwarzenegger’s State of the State address and Google’s new offerings at a technology trade show in Las Vegas. Representatives from CBS and NBC have dismissed the supposed novelty of the West Coast edition, saying that ABC is merely codifying a practice long followed by all the nightly newscasts: keeping extra staff on hand to interrupt the West Coast edition with breaking news when the occasion requires.

Of the two anchors, it’s Vargas who’s been the focus of greater media scrutiny, perhaps because she’s a woman, perhaps because, as the co-host of the ABC newsmagazine 20/20, she has a more tabloidy reputation to live down. Robert Laurence of the San Diego Union-Tribune tracks Vargas’ “histrionic” facial expressions: A smile for the circus! A frown for the dead coal miners! But as Anderson Cooper’s ascent proves, lady anchors aren’t the only ones busy keeping the fake newsman Stephen Colbert’ s promise to “feel the news at you.” I’m more disturbed by Vargas’ decision not to give up the 20/20 post when she officially moved into the co-anchor slot. Friday’s World News Tonight ended on a promo for that night’s edition of 20/20. The top story: “Star Jones: Love her or hate her, she’s a star!” The tag ended on a smiling headshot of John Stossel and … Elizabeth Vargas. This is the woman who we’re supposed to get our hard news from?

Monday’s New York Times reported that Jon Banner, the executive producer of World News Tonight, had a plan in place in case Ariel Sharon died during the course of the Jan. 4 broadcast. That night, Vargas was anchoring on location from the site of the mining disaster in West Virginia when the news came in that Sharon was being rushed to the hospital. Banner’s suggestion: If she heard in her earpiece that the prime minister had suddenly passed away, Vargas should quickly announce the fact, then hand the story off to Barbara Walters and Charles Gibson at the main anchor desk in New York. Vargas protested that she had been following the story on the wires and was more than prepared to field any interviews about it, regardless of her location.

Eventually, Vargas won the argument, though the point proved moot, as Sharon survived the broadcast. But the positive spin Vargas gives in her account of the discussion with Banner—”The reason I know he’s always got my back,” she said, “is because I know how much he had Peter [Jennings’]”—sounds like whistling in the dark. Banner’s decision to keep a more seasoned news team on hand in case a big international story broke seems uncomfortably like a vote of no confidence, a confirmation of the suspicions of New York Sun columnist David Blum, who recently wrote: “I wonder whether I’m ever going to turn to Elizabeth Vargas in an hour of need.” (Then again, Banner doesn’t sound like the most supportive of bosses: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Gail Shister quotes him as grading Woodruff and Vargas’ first week on the job as “a solid B-plus.” Uh … thanks, chief!) The reason for the proposed hand-off, according to the article, was that Vargas was “technologically removed from New York.” But it’s hard to imagine Peter Jennings being asked to pass a story like Sharon’s death off to someone else, even if he were broadcasting from the heart of hell itself.