Fourteen minutes until airtime. Jim Vance is ricocheting around the makeup room next to WRC-TV’s news set. Vance doesn’t wear makeup when he anchors the news — never has, doesn’t like it — but he’s in the makeup room nevertheless. He’s pawing through combs and brushes like a big cat, albeit one with a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth. He says he’s nervous.
Seven minutes until airtime. Wait. Vance — everyone calls him that — is nervous? He has been reporting and anchoring on WRC, the NBC station in Washington, for 45 years. He still gets nervous?
Three minutes ... “I’ve never, ever gotten used to this,” he explains, stubbing out another Camel as he settles behind the anchor desk next to Doreen Gentzler, his co-anchor. “There’s something unnatural about it.” Gentzler sighs.
Thirty seconds ... Remote-controlled robot cameras glide across the newsroom floor, stopping to point their lenses at Vance and Gentzler. They shuffle papers, fix their serious anchorpeople expressions.
And ... theme music ... swooshing graphics ... lights. Teleprompters scroll. Vance begins a voice-over teasing the night’s first story.
“Good evening, I’m Jim Vance,” he says.
“And I’m Doreen Gentzler. There are more questions than answers tonight in the deaths of a mother and her two young children. ...”
The nightly ritual is 25 years old now. Vance and Gentzler introducing the daily dose of heartbreak, mayhem and relief. Tonight they amble smoothly through a rundown that includes the family story, a suspicious package in Alexandria and the suspension of four high school students for surreptitiously taking illicit photos of a teacher. If Vance is nervous, it doesn’t show.
There’s an old cliche in the TV news business: People don’t watch the news; they watch the people on the news. For most of the past quarter-century in Washington, people have watched Vance and Gentzler. “Jim and Doreen,” as “News4’s” field reporters ritually address them, regularly win a popularity contest that isn’t much in doubt. The audience for their 6 p.m. newscast during May “sweeps” was 17 percent larger than that of second-place WJLA, anchored by Washington’s other venerable anchor team, Gordon Peterson and Maureen Bunyan. The margin at 11 p.m. was even larger, 41 percent. Gentzler-Vance drew more viewers throughout the Washington area than CNN, Fox News and MSNBC averaged together in prime time.
In one of the most news-obsessed regions on the planet, “Jim and Doreen” are its preeminent news personalities.
Almost every city in America has its dominant anchor team, a long-running duo that becomes, like the mythical Ron Burgundy and Veronica Corningstone, a living civic institution. Washington has two such pairs: Vance and Gentzler on Channel 4, and Peterson and Bunyan on Channel 7. Peterson and Bunyan have actually been on the air longer; their partnership spans two discontinuous stretches at two stations over 27 years.
But Vance and Gentzler have been the preferred choice of local viewers for most of the past two decades.
For this, Jim Vance can thank a shrewd bet on an unknown.
Vance was an established figure in local television when Gentzler arrived at WRC’s studios near American University in July 1989. Vance was a pioneer, one of the first African Americans to report for a big-city station. He had been on the air for 20 years and had been lionized for his recovery from a near-fatal cocaine habit in the mid-1980s.
What he wasn’t, however, was especially popular. Station managers had tried pairing him with a series of anchors — Sue Simmons, Jim Hartz, Dave Marash and others — with varying success. The station took a gamble on Gentzler, a relative neophyte who had been demoted in her last gig in Philadelphia.
Anchors are like co-stars, cast for elusive qualities such as “chemistry” and “balance” that viewers sense but might not be able to define. In her case, Gentzler offered a softer counterpoint to Vance’s harder edges. Where he was cool and seemingly aloof, she was warmer and down to earth. At 31, she was self-confident enough to interject, needle and even cackle during the on-air banter with her all-male “team”: Vance, sportscaster George Michael, weatherman Bob Ryan and entertainment reviewer Arch Campbell.
In assessing his co-anchor, Vance draws his words out slowly. “Two words come to mind,” he says, “respect and admiration. When Doreen came, it was me, George, Bob and Arch. And then here comes this skirt. Big hair. Drop-dead gorgeous. But it was apparent from the start she was a grown-up. She was nobody’s punk. She established herself as a necessary and valuable member of the team.”
The partnership has been good for both of them. Vance, 72, says he has continued to renew his contract long past retirement age in part because he enjoys working with Gentzler. Gentzler, 56, has thrived in a business that can be brutal on women who dare to age. Neither would likely be among the highest-paid anchors in local television — among the 200-plus markets in the country — without the other.
“Our styles are very different,” Gentzler says. “Our backgrounds and lifestyles are very different, too. We have a friendly, respectful relationship, and that’s not an act.”
Indeed, they are friends, to a point. “We know each other’s families well,” she says, “but we aren’t going out drinking on weekends.”
Off the air, Gentzler likes to exercise and take bicycle vacations. Vance loathes his twice-weekly weight-lifting workouts but does enjoy riding bikes — in his case, a 2004 Harley-Davidson Road Glide and a top-of-the-line 2014 Electra Glide Ultra Classic. Gentzler has been married for 28 years to Bill Miller, a former Washington Post editor who’s now a spokesman for the U.S. district attorney in Washington. Vance has been married three times (his first, at 19, lasted 10 months and produced the first of three children, a daughter who is five years younger than Gentzler). He is estranged from his current wife, Kathy McCampbell Vance, a former WRC producer and news executive.
Gentzler decorates her side of their small, bland office at WRC’s Nebraska Avenue NW complex with framed photos of her husband and two children. Vance’s space is dominated by aphoto of the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the middle of their black power protest at the 1968 Olympics. When the camera is on, Gentzler usually sticks to the script; Vance takes delight in what he calls “running” or “dancing” — ignoring what’s on the teleprompter and making up his own narration. She lets him know when he flubs the improvisation.
Gentzler grew up in the Dominion Hills section of north Arlington, the oldest of three siblings. Her mother, Rita O’Flinn, was a secretary for federal agencies; her late father, Ferris Gentzler, was an insurance executive; they divorced when their daughter was 18. When Doreen was 11, the family moved to Mount Pleasant, S.C., a pretty, prosperous and mostly white town across the river from Charleston. On return trips to Washington to visit her grandparents, she’d watch Vance deliver the news.
She thought she wanted to be a print journalist, but at the University of Georgia, she discovered she liked broadcasting. With a direct speaking style and a girl-next-door beauty, she landed her first TV reporting job at a station in Chattanooga, Tenn., at 22. Less than a year later, she was anchoring on weeknights — the prime position in local news — in Charlotte. After stops in Cleveland and Philadelphia, she was back in Washington, anchoring with Vance.
Even though women had entered TV news in the decade preceding her, Gentzler still faced sexist assumptions. The primary one was that a female anchor was the “junior” of the male-female pair. She often wasn’t permitted to read the symbolically important first story or to engage in the “happy talk” that makes anchors more personable. “Vance is generous,” she says. “He’s not threatened by someone sitting next to him. I could relax and be myself.”
Vance had become a news story in his own right before he teamed with Gentzler. As one of the first African American newsmen on a big-city TV station, the Afro-ed and mutton-chopped Vance became a Great Black Hope for a segregated city still smarting from the riots of 1968. Some blacks saw a role model; some whites seethed at a black man in a position of such symbolic authority. When he became an anchor in 1972, the hate mail poured in.
In the ensuing years, the pressure of his pioneering role and a deep self-loathing convinced Vance that he was unworthy of his hard-earned status. By the early 1980s, as his second marriage was dissolving, his casual use of cocaine had metastasized into addiction. He was absent from the air for long, unexplained stretches; station managers considered firing him several times. He went to rehab twicebut relapsed both times. The drugs depleted him, financially, professionally, emotionally.
His nadir came late one night in 1987. Sitting in the dirt by the Potomac River at Great Falls, he stuck one of his bird-hunting shotguns in his mouth and contemplated pulling the trigger. He stopped, lowered the gun and cried freely. The next day, he went for help at a dingy downtown support group “full of old-school drunks.”
He was drug-free when Gentzler arrived two years later. But he’s the first to admit his demons hadn’t been vanquished.
Vance grew up in Ardmore, Pa., a mostly white suburb west of Philadelphia. The patriarch of the family was his paternal grandfather, who supported his 16 children through his plumbing business. Vance’s father, James Jr., was an alcoholic who came home from World War II traumatized by combat. He died at 38 from cirrhosis of the liver when his only child was 9.
A second blow fell soon thereafter. Vance’s mother, Eleanor, left her son with her in-laws and an array of aunts and uncles to live and work in Philadelphia.
The pain of his mother’s abandonment and his father’s death never left him. “I frankly had a resentment against her for most of my life that I probably let go of maybe 10 years ago,” he says. “She said I’d be better off [with his grandfather’s family], the schools were better, it was the suburbs, that I wouldn’t be home by myself, blah, blah, blah. All perfectly good and logical reasons and none of which I found acceptable.
“I wanted her to want me to go with her into Philadelphia. I wanted someone to talk my mother out of leaving me with my grandparents. And that didn’t happen.”
Once, years later, when his mother visited him in a drug-rehabilitation facility, a counselor asked him what he wanted to say to her. “I sat there a long time, and I said, ‘I don’t ever remember you hugging me.’ My mother, God bless her, to her credit said, ‘Jimmy, I’m just not the hugging kind.’ And those were the only words we spoke for the next 50 minutes. ... What it did is it affirmed a sense and feeling I had since I was a child that she probably would rather not have had me.”
His father’s death, Vance says, compounded his sense of being unwanted. “When my old man died, I was convinced that it was my fault,” he said. “I was convinced I was such a piece of s--- that he’d rather die than hang out with me.”
Vance wanted to be a plumber like “Pop,” his grandfather, but his family urged him to go to college. At Cheyney State College, a historically black school outside Philadelphia, he studied to become a teacher (and became one, teaching English for three years in a Philadelphia junior high before making the leap to television).
One of his pals at Cheyney was Ed Bradley, who would go on to an illustrious career as a CBS reporter and “60 Minutes” correspondent. It was Bradley who persuaded Vance to seek therapy, which Vance describes as a life-changing, even life-saving, decision. The gold loop that Vance wears in his left ear is a tribute to his friend, who wore an earring for many years until his death in 2006.
After a second round of therapy starting in the late 1990s, Vance says he finally gained clarity. “What happened was, I became aware that the s--- I felt as a 9-year-old did not have to define me for the rest of my life.”
Vance’s public rise, fall and recovery from addiction made him a symbol of resilience. Mayor Marion Barry, wrestling with his own substance-abuse problems, sought Vance’s advice about rehab. No less a figure than President George H.W. Bush befriended Vance and invited him and his wife to the White House for a movie screening. They went fishing together twice.
But Vance, and WRC, proved no more popular with viewers. The station continued to finish second or even third in the nightly ratings, far behind the Peterson-Bunyan team on Channel 9.
Station managers tried everything to move the needle. For nearly two decades, they had paired Vance with a succession of anchors — white, black, male, female, young and middle-aged. Nothing quite clicked.
Under pressure from WRC’s owner, NBC, station manager Allan Horlick began the search for a new co-anchor in 1989. Internal research indicated that viewers were turned off by what Arch Campbell calls “an old boys’ club” led by Vance and co-anchor Dave Marash. Horlick liked what he had seen of Gentzler when she was with the NBC station in Cleveland, but he wasn’t crazy about what had become of her after she had joined Philadelphia’s CBS station, WCAU-TV. “In Cleveland, she was real,” recalls Horlick, who now runs his own communications firm in Washington. “They let her be herself. [In Philadelphia], they had her dressing 20 or 30 years older. She had ridiculous clothes and helmet hair.”
Gentzler was dissatisfied at WCAU; she had been anchoring on weeknights, but was sent back to weekends when the ratings failed to improve. She made a pitch to Horlick. “It was the only time in my career that an anchor called me up at home and said: ‘I heard you’re looking for an anchor. How come we’re not talking?’ ” he said. “I told her I didn’t want the Philadelphia Doreen, I wanted the Cleveland Doreen. She said: ‘That’s the real me!’ ”
In the compressed narrative of what followed, the Vance-Gentzler combo clicked immediately, spawning WRC’s news dynasty. The reality is more nuanced. Although Vance and Gentzler seemed to hit it off, and Gentzler could hold her own with Michael, Ryan and Campbell, she and her husband weren’t sure she would last.
Viewers eventually came around, prompted by a number of factors. One was the arrest of Barry on drug-possession charges in January 1990. The story, which broke seven months after Gentzler started at WRC, sparked marathon coverage by the city’s news stations. Vance, with his own drug use a recent memory, anchored the station’s reporting. At the same time, the advent of NBC’s blockbuster “must-see TV” lineup of the 1990s began to feed thousands of new viewers to the Vance-Gentzler newscast at 11 p.m. And then longtime news leader WUSA began to disintegrate, first with the death of beloved sportscaster Glenn Brenner in 1992, then with the resignation of Bunyan in 1995. News4 was on its way.
The TV business has been transformed since then, of course. In the mid-1990s, the Internet was just a hazy outline, and cable TV was still in its adolescence. There was no Fox News or MSNBC, let alone YouTube, Google, Facebook or smartphones. In May 1994, Nielsen estimated that 189,250 households tuned to Vance and Gentzler’s 11 p.m. newscast — perhaps 250,000 viewers. This May, with a more precise measurement system, Nielsen estimated that the number watching News4 at 11 had slipped to 132,000 viewers, or just over half of what it had been 20 years ago.
The fading fortunes of TV news suggest that Gentzler and Vance (as well as Bunyan and Peterson) could be the last great local anchor teams. Surely, says Arch Campbell, who now appears on WJLA, no one will ever last 45 years with the same station in the same city, as Vance has at WRC. And 25 years with the same co-anchor may be out of the question, too. “You’ll never have a group like we had, with the same people staying together for so many years,” Campbell said. “The business is changing.”
Vance goes even further: “I’m not sure there will be local news in 25 years.” He pauses, reconsidering. “I take that back. There will be TV news, but it will be different. Look at the technology, social media, the economics changing. It’s a whole different animal now.”
Vance sees it in his own adult children, Dawn, 51; Amani, 42; and Brendon, 38. “They are three incredibly bright kids ... who have no time or interest in watching local TV news,” he says.
Gentzler isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon. She has a daughter, Carson, still in college (an older son, Chris, just graduated), and a few years left on her contract. “There’s nothing telling me it’s time to go,” she says. But she looks around at the changes in her business and thinks, Nothing lasts forever.
For Vance, the horizon seems closer. Already, he takes off most Fridays. Colleagues say he has made clear his intention to retire when his contract expires at the end of 2015, and plans to stop anchoring at 11 p.m. at mid-year to give WRC time to introduce viewers to his successor.
Maybe. Vance says he has been contemplating retirement for 20 years but keeps coming back. “The fact is,” he says: “I really still like what I do. I like this business. There’s validity, almost a nobility, in pursuing the truth as best we can find it. And I like working with Doreen Gentzler. Why would I stop doing what I like doing with people I like doing it with?”
Paul Farhi covers the media for The Washington Post.
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