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Short-timer at the anchor

``YOU'RE A short-timer," my editor said. I was 8 months pregnant, and he was explaining why he had promised my desk to a co-worker -- even before I left for maternity leave.

That was 17 years ago. I was vacating a relatively prime piece of real estate in a classically dingy newspaper office -- not losing a high-profile anchor job. But 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.

The lurch to replace Vargas, 43, with Charles Gibson, 63, has a definite retro ring to it. And Gibson seems to recognize it: ``This is a little bit back to the future," he told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post.

Talk about back to the future. Marriage and maternity leave as career breaker was a prominent theme for The New York Times, two days running.

On Wednesday, it was the Page One story about the Vargas reassignment.

On Tuesday, the Times published a Page One story under the headline ``For Clintons, Delicate Dance of Married and Public Lives." Between the lines, the article was cause for speculation about Bill Clinton's fidelity and its impact on Hillary Clinton's political future. Of course, Bill Clinton has a track record here. But if the political beat now demands the pondering of possible marital infidelity by spouses of presidential candidates, as well as by the actual candidates, campaign coverage could get as spicy as ``Desperate Housewives" -- and maybe that's the point.

Newspapers, like network news broadcasts, are losing their audience. So, let's give people what they might want: stories about a possibly unfaithful ex-president whose wife is a probable presidential candidate and TV news delivered by a steady, old-fashioned anchorman.

To get to the preferred older-male anchor model, ABC bypassed Diane Sawyer, who is two years younger than Gibson. For women in television and elsewhere, over 60 is ancient, not seasoned.

Even before she announced her pregnancy, Vargas confronted a parallel dilemma. At 43, she had to fight the ``lightweight" stigma. When ABC News named Vargas and 44-year-old Bob Woodruff as its evening news coanchors, you could feel the burden of feminist expectation on her shoulders. ``Especially as a woman, I really, really want to do this well. It's important to have a woman be successful in this role," she told The Washington Post.

Woodruff, whose credentials were also challenged, breezily told the staff, ``This is awesome."

The new ABC team, which replaced longtime anchor Peter Jennings after his death in August, did not have much chance to gel. Woodruff was badly injured in January by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Vargas was alone on the anchor desk, a dangerous place to be when the broadcast landed in third place. Going through what she describes as ``not the easiest pregnancy," Vargas gave ABC the opening to make her a very short-timer on the evening news anchor desk.

I wish Gibson well in his dream job. He is lik able and knowledgeable enough, although his presence won't make me watch ABC's ``World News Tonight" any more than I already do, which isn't a lot.

Some anchors are more irritating than others, but my general viewing habits have little to do with the person reading the headlines, whether he or she is sitting, standing, or travel ing around the world. When I'm not working, I'm like most people. I schedule when and how to get news around the rest of my life. Over the long term, 6:30 p.m., the traditional time for network news, is not a good time, for all the documented reasons: commuting, meals, family obligations.

But in the short term, curio sity is a draw. An over-60, white, male anchor in a pin-striped suit is not a curiosity; been there, zapped that. That's why, when she moves from mornings at NBC to the ``CBS Evening News," Katie Couric enjoys an edge. When a woman takes over the anchor desk, there is so much to wonder about. Will she wear jackets or stick with ``Today" show sweater sets? Will she lengthen her skirts and shorten her heels? Will she lose the perky and find the gravitas to please the critics, male and female?

With a contract estimated at $15 million a year, turning Couric into a short-timer would be a very expensive proposition.

She who has the gold, rules. Elizabeth, make them pay for going back to the future.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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