Elizabeth Vargas on going public with alcoholism struggle — and her plans for tackling substance abuse, mental health on her new show

Elizabeth Vargas

Elizabeth Vargas is back to delivering the nightly news. (Photo: NewsNation)

Elizabeth Vargas is back to delivering the nightly news.

“It’s in my blood as they say,” the new host of NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas Reports, which debuts April 3,  tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I’m a news junkie. I have been since I first got into this business.”

The Emmy-winning journalist’s career includes over two decades with ABC News, where she co-anchored 20/20 and World News Tonight and was news anchor on Good Morning America before leaving in 2018 to pursue new ventures. She’s since hosted Fox’s America’s Most Wanted, the syndicated iCrime and Partnership to End Addiction podcast, Heart of the Matter, as well as worked on documentaries.

Vargas says the “historic news cycle” was the lure to do the newscast of record five days a week. “I can’t resist having a front-row seat to historic presidential elections, the war in Ukraine, tensions with China, tensions boiling over the Middle East,” she says. Plus, “there’s something really unique and interesting about being involved in a brand new cable news network at the very beginning,” she says of the cable startup. “I’d always sort of romanticized what it must have been like to be at CNN, for example, back when it first started and nobody knew what CNN was. Being able to build that cable news network from the ground up.”

Her team of producers, bookers and writers — or as she calls them the “huge brain behind the show” — have been hired. The finishing touches have been put on her new set of the Chicago-based cable network’s New York studio. Promo images of her have been popping up in places even she wasn’t expecting — and she officially has show swag.

“We’re going to just hit the ground running,” Vargas says. “It’s a brand new set, new control room, new newsroom. There probably be a lot of bugs we’ll be working out in the first few weeks … [but] we all know how to roll with the punches. None of us are novices. We’re all veterans from various networks.”

And so are the other stars of the network that she’s joining at NewsNation. Chris Cuomo, host of Cuomo after his high-profile CNN exit, “and I worked together for many, many years at ABC,” she says. “I worked for many years — even longer — with Dan Abrams. Ashleigh [Banfield] I know because it’s in many ways it’s a very small swimming pool, this business. We all sort of go back and forth between different networks and know each other or of each other at the very least.”

Vargas recently spoke out when another person in that pool, CNN’s Don Lemon, made sexist remarks about older women. She made the point that “experience matters,” whether it’s life experience or job experience. She tells us, “Especially in the journalism field. I know so much more today than I knew 10 years ago, and way more than I knew 20 or 30 years ago.”

Just in the last 10 years her life has changed so much. A decade ago, Vargas began treatment for alcoholism, stemming from a lifetime battle with anxiety, and used that experience to write her best-selling memoir Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction.

“I plan to make my NewsNation show the show that really tackles mental health and the substance use disorder crisis in this country in a thoughtful way,” Vargas says. “We’re doing the news of the day, which often involves the crisis at the southern border and the fentanyl crisis in this country. It’s absolutely true — as I heard a former colleague and friend of mine, John Miller, say on CNN, We’re all focused on the supply of fentanyl as this huge problem. Nobody’s talking about the demand — and he’s right. Yes, we have to fix this, but we can’t just focus on one half of the problem because as long as the demand is there, cartels of some kind will find a way to satisfy it, and to enrich themselves off of that. So I intend to really cover this mental health crisis, especially for our adolescents and kids, which has become — we know from statistics — really, really bad. I want to cover these issues in a really thoughtful way, a way I don’t think TV really does to a large extent right now.”

We talk about how conversations around addiction and mental health have — though mostly haven’t — changed since her own battle was made public, by a tabloid, in 2013. She had to issue a public statement from rehab, when she was supposed to be focusing on her wellness. Days after she left treatment, she did an interview discussing her alcoholism with a colleague in front of the world.

“Maybe a little, not nearly enough,” she says. “There is still enormous stigma around substance use disorder. According to estimates from the government, 43 million people need treatment of some kind for alcohol or drugs. Three million get it. It’s insanely small and people still feel ashamed to talk about anxiety and depression. It’s gotten a lot better around mental health issues, but there’s still enormous stigma around both and there’s a real lack of understanding. The fact that I was forced to give an interview three days home from rehab? And I didn’t know enough to say: Excuse me, that is not happening because it’s not good for me. I was sort of bullied into doing it.”

Of that whole time, she says, “Yes, I was outed in rehab. Yes, I was forced to give an interview — not forced but strongly urged to give an interview just three days home from rehab on Good Morning America. Looking back on it, it’s outrageous. I didn’t know [how to handle it]. I certainly didn’t know who decided to call Page Six or the [New York] Daily News or whatever [outlet] it was to say, ‘Elizabeth Vargas is in rehab for alcohol.’ Why did somebody think they needed to do that? And why did some reporter think they needed to write about that in the salacious way that they did?”

We talk how, by comparison, model and actress Cara Delevingne used a Vogue magazine cover story to reveal she had privately sought treatment in rehab and was sober. Using the story, months out, to share general parts of her recovery on her own terms.

“I gotta be honest, I saw Cara [presenting] at the Oscars and I was so happy,” says Vargas, who is a single mom to sons Zachary, 20, and Samuel, 16. “How beautiful she looked on that stage. How healthy she looked. Listen, when she wants to really tell her full story, if she wants to tell her full story, it will definitely inspire people because look at the before and after. Look at the photos of her at the airport looking clearly distressed and clearly unhealthy and those pictures of her the Oscars.”

She continues, “I mean: You can get better — and that’s a really powerful message. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I think the more people say that and show that, the better we all are. And I’m grateful for the fact that I get to show it. I’ll get to show it every single night I’m on the air.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357)

Elizabeth Vargas Reports will debut April 3 at 6 p.m. ET on NewsNation.

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