An Anchor’s Rise

Le Charlot, a bistro on 68th Street between Park and Madison avenues, is one of those restaurants where you’re simultaneously captivated and appalled by all the beautiful people who apparently have unlimited time and money to spend on personal grooming and fine dining.

 

GARDNER

Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Chris Jansing, the anchor of ‘Jansing & Co.,’ at the NBC studios in Midtown Manhattan on Friday.

In the midst of that hectic scene on a recent evening, without a table to be had, I spotted Chris Jansing, the anchor of the 10 a.m. MSNBC news program “Jansing & Co.,” dining with friends. Ms. Jansing, one of the hardest-working women in television journalism, doesn’t quite fit the restaurant’s leisure-class demographic. (By the way, and not that I mean to suggest it’s a new phenomenon, but who are all these French and Italians who smugly lord their superior style sense over the rest of us and take our seats at restaurants? If Europe is so great, why are they here rather than over there wandering the Marais or Trastevere?)

But back to Ms. Jansing, to whom I introduced myself as an admirer. She’s come a long way since the first time I spotted her, in the early 1980s, anchoring the local news on WNYT in Albany. I’m not sure what it was I found so appealing about her, what etched her in my memory. Perhaps it started with her name—Chris Kapostasy. (When she moved to the network she changed it to Jansing, her married name, though she has since divorced.) It wasn’t one of those generic TV-anchor names. And then there was her appearance. She didn’t look like your average local news fembot. Indeed, this was almost before that era, when local news was dominated by middle-age white men who looked like they had turned to broadcasting after the job at the bank fell through.

“It was a great gig,” said Ms. Jansing, who spent 17 years at the station. “I worked with incredibly talented people. It’s a great place to live—45 minutes to Vermont; 2 ½ hours to New York City. The cost of living was very low. The viewers were incredibly good to me.”

Perhaps so, but if job security and quality of life is your first priority, the typically peripatetic career of a TV reporter doesn’t instantly come to mind. You join for the glamour, the recognition; to hobnob with movers and shakers and to bear witness to the great events of your time, even if they’re only local.

Fortunately Ms. Jansing’s other loyal Albany-area viewers and I weren’t the only ones to recognize her talents. One weekend in the late ’90s, Andy Lack, then the president of NBC News, happened to be vacationing at the Sagamore on Lake George when he saw Ms. Jansing on TV. “I got a message on my answering machine,” Ms. Jansing remembered. “It said, ‘I’m the assistant to the president of NBC News. He wants to talk to you about a job.’ I thought it was a joke. People don’t go from Albany to the network. They told me nobody had ever gone from a No. 50 market to the network.”

I asked the anchor, who was 41 at the time, what she thought Mr. Lack saw in her. I wasn’t inviting her to blow her own horn. I was merely curious whether she could describe the amorphous, and undersung, skills that distinguish the best news anchors from the air-brushed also-rans, the mere teleprompter virtuosos. I’m talking about the transcendent shallowness masquerading as content that Will Farrell mortally skewered in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”

“After 17 years at one station I was very comfortable with the stories and telling those stories to the community,” Ms. Jansing stated modestly when we got together Friday morning at 30 Rock. “Maybe he saw some commitment and comfort and depth that comes from 17 years of living in one place.

“I always was a reporter at heart,” she went on. “People ask me, ‘Why do you come in at 5 a.m. for a 10 a.m. show?’ I look through 10 newspapers and half a dozen websites. Somebody gave me a piece of advice early on. It’s about doing your homework. I never slack off from doing my homework. If I’m talking about the Middle East, the people I’m interviewing—an ambassador, somebody from a think tank—that’s their life’s work. I’m trying to have enough knowledge to ask the right questions. Otherwise, I’d walk in at 9:30 and run a brush through my hair.”

Ms. Jansing, who lives in Chelsea, grew up in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, on Lake Erie, the youngest of 12 children. She remembers sitting at the dining room table as a child when she heard a woman who visited regularly refer to her mother as “Mom.”

“I said, ‘Why are you calling her mom?’ She said, ‘Because I’m your sister.’ She’d moved out of the house when I was a baby. I learned early on you need to ask a lot of questions.”

That inquisitiveness has served her well. She covered the Columbine shootings and won an Emmy Award for her work following the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Games. She spent 36 12-hour days in Tallahassee during the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election recount, even while nursing a killer cold. “[Viewers] from other states were bringing me baked goods and cold medication,” she recalled. And she was on the air the morning of 9/11 when the planes struck the Twin Towers. “For weeks after I was basically seven hours a day on MSNBC,” she said.

These days, in addition to anchoring her own show, she contributes to “Dateline NBC,” substitutes as an anchor on “Weekend Today” and the Sunday “Nightly News” and travels for “NBC Nightly News,” working on several pieces for its Olympics coverage. On Friday morning, she was preparing a story on the “Hunger Games” publishing phenomenon. “I’m off the air at 11,” she explained. “I can still come over here and turn a story for 6:30.”

We took a tour of the MSNBC newsroom, where she introduced me to John Wilson, one of her segment producers. Friday also happened to be Mr. Wilson’s birthday. “I brought in a breakfast casserole,” Ms. Jansing reported. She’s proud of her Hungarian heritage, including its cuisine. I wondered whether that required her to rise even earlier than normal. “I was up well before 4,” she confessed.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com