ABC News Anchors' Revelations of Personal Travails: Strategy or Coincidence?

5:00 AM PST 02/26/2014 by Marisa Guthrie
From left: Dan Harris, Elizabeth Vargas and Cecilia Vega

As the age of social media encourages oversharing, anchors are disclosing their struggles with drugs, alcoholism and life-threatening illnesses.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Into every life a little rain must fall, and it's obvious to viewers of ABC News that its anchors lately have endured a downpour. One after another has made headlines for disclosing personal travails.

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Nightline co-anchor Dan Harris confessed to cocaine and ecstasy use to palliate depression that set in after covering wars in the Middle East. He has chronicled his journey from on-air panic attack to self-discovery through meditation in a book, 10% Happier. Then, on Feb. 7, Los Angeles-based correspondent Cecilia Vega revealed her father's heroin addiction in the course of reporting on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas — a frequent fill-in for Robin Roberts last year on Good Morning America while Roberts was battling a life-threatening blood disease (chronicled on GMA) — in November admitted to being an alcoholic. A few days after Vargas' revelation, correspondent Amy Robach divulged she had breast cancer and would undergo a bilateral mastectomy. Extraordinarily, Robach's cancer was discovered after a live, on-air mammogram as part of a GMA segment. (She later was featured on People's cover.)

To be sure, ABC's anchors are not the only ones sharing: Al Roker's dramatic weight loss was chronicled on NBC; Tamron Hall, Lester Holt and other African-American anchors have talked about being racially profiled; and NBC correspondents Jenna Wolfe and Stephanie Gosk scored airtime for the birth of their daughter last summer.

Still, ABC News' recent trend toward making its anchors the story has prompted cynical eye-rolling among some competitors. But ABC executives are adamant that there is no larger strategy afoot.

"The confluence of personal stories coming out of this news division is absolutely not by design," ABC News senior vp Jeffrey Schneider tells THR. "They just reflect real life and real things happening to real people. It is our belief that telling those stories in a relatable way is the best way to deal with them."

After all, in the social media age, personal disclosure, even from the once buttoned-up TV anchors, no longer is taboo.

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Vargas had been conspicuously absent from ABC due to a stint in rehab, known about by a handful of colleagues. She would have preferred that her alcoholism remained a private matter, but when the news division's communications team received a call from a New York Daily News gossip writer, they were prepared with a statement.

Harris' Feb. 12 blog post revealing his drug use has received more than 3,000 Facebook likes. The revelations in Harris' book, published by HarperCollins, initially surprised his colleagues at ABC News, but network brass was supportive and Harris had numerous conversations with Schneider, the division's top communications strategist, about how he could stay in control of his own story. The last thing ABC News execs wanted was a salacious headline about their anchor's illicit drug use.

"Being the author of that story is always better than having someone else do it for you," says Schneider. "More than anything else, we want to keep faith with our loyal audiences. They have deep relationships with our journalists. If something about any one of those people is going to make news, we would prefer that they hear that news from us. These are real people with real problems; to pretend otherwise would be foolish."

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