People don’t watch the news, some sage once said: They watch the people on the news. Jim Vance was fascinating to watch.
Reserved yet strong, vulnerable yet sure, Vance cast a halo of cool over his nightly reading of the day’s mayhem, tragedy and triumph. His particular gift was to make viewers believe that he was authentic, and so the news he imparted must be too.
The WRC-TV anchorman, 75, died of cancer on Saturday. He practically died with his boots on. Vance broke his own terrible news on the air in early May but continued to anchor the 6 p.m. broadcast until May 23.
Along with the retired Gordon Peterson, Vance was a Mount Rushmore figure in television news in Washington. He enjoyed an impossibly long career — almost 50 years on the air, including 45 as an anchor. Just as remarkably, he spent all of that time at one station, NBC-owned WRC, or “News4.”
For at least a couple of generations of Washingtonians — many of whom come from somewhere else — he was a fixture, in a medium that values fresh faces, especially young ones.
Vance — everyone called him that, just Vance — did something both mundane and magical. Anchors don’t do much, really. They essentially read words, written by others, off a teleprompter. Yet they are everything to a newscast. Without their perceived authority and gravitas, without being likable enough to be invited into your den or your bedroom, there is no audience, and no newscast.
Vance projected a certain reserve and mystery. With his head held slightly back from the camera, he seemed literally to be keeping his distance from the stories he introduced. Sometimes he told you what he was thinking in one of his grumpy-but-commonsensical editorials, or in his banter with sports guy George Michael, the over-caffeinated antithesis to the wry, keep-calm Vance.
But mostly, you had no idea where Vance stood. Was he a Democrat? A Republican? An independent? Yeah, maybe. Was he sad or angry about the catastrophe he just described? Does he feel like me? Maybe.
He was not, in any case, all that good about explaining his own appeal. Vance was reluctant to talk about himself — pinning him down for interviews could be difficult — but once he opened up, he was a gusher. Years of therapy made him fluent about his personal history, his sense of childhood abandonment and the personal demons that haunted him. His battle with depression and cocaine addiction nearly led him to take his life one night in 1987. His recovery made him a hero, a symbol of perseverance. Viewers sensed that this was a man who’d really lived.
It’s impossible to write about Vance without mentioning his collaboration with Doreen Gentzler, his co-anchor since 1989. His story is, at least in part, also hers.
Gentzler was a young anchor in a bit of a career rut when WRC decided to recruit her from Philadelphia as Vance’s co-anchor. Vance had been the one constant at WRC through a long series of revolving deskmates: Sue Simmons, Dave Marash, Jim Hartz. At one point, the station thought it had signed Peterson to join Vance, but a contract dispute cratered the deal.
The arrival of Gentzler created a demographically appealing combination: black and white; male and female; younger and older. The same kind of pairing had been tried before, of course, but something about Vance-Gentzler (and the supporting crew of Michaels, weathercaster Bob Ryan and entertainment reporter Arch Campbell) caught fire.
With a boost from NBC’s “must-see” prime-time line up of the 1990s, they became the most popular team in news-hungry Washington, and continued that way for many years. It didn’t matter when NBC’s programming became a wheels-off disaster. (Anyone remember Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show?) Viewers still switched from whatever they were watching to see Jim and Doreen.
For all his success, Vance was sobered by the trajectory of his medium. He acknowledged that the age in which the village assembled around the electronic campfire to hear an elder tell of the day’s news was fading, that audiences were scattering.
He knew that no single figure, or pair of them, could anchor a community and hold viewers’ attention, let alone establish their trust.
Which means Vance would appreciate this not as flattery but as fact: There won’t be anyone like Jim Vance again.