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“On Deadline with Gabe Pressman”: My Starstruck 1973 Profile of the Late Dean of NYC TV Reporters

Back in 1973, clutching a masters degree in journalism from Columbia, I decided to take the class that Gabe Pressman, gave at the New School. This “indefatigable dean of New York’s television reporters” (as described in his Friday NY Times obit) generously allowed a few students to shadow him on different days. I was one of the lucky ones.

Gabe proved to be both a tough reporter and a kind mentor.

Gabe Pressman’s profile photo on Facebook and Twitter

Watching him cover two breaking news stories from start to finish, and chatting with him throughout the day, I knew a lively profile story had been dropped in my lap. On Deadline with Gabe Pressman: A day in the life of New York’s premier TV newsman, published in the April 1973 issue of Quill (the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists), was my firsthand account of attributes more soberly and elegiacally described in the reverent Times obit by Robert McFadden, himself a veteran NYC reporter (although, at 80, 13 years Gabe’s junior).

Gabe loved my piece, so I guess it struck him as true…or at least flattering. By observing him in action, I learned a lot about digging to get the story right and not following the pack or trusting conventional wisdom. I’d like to think that those lessons have informed some of my subsequent work, including CultureGrrl.

Below is an excerpt from McFadden’s Times obit, coupled with related vignettes from my piece that captured the edgy demeanor of the man whose apt last name—not a pen name—foretold his professional destiny:

McFadden: A matinee idol anchorman he was not….He was…the short, rumpled, pushy guy…who seemed always on the scene, elbowing his way to the front and jabbing his microphone in the face of a witness or a big shot.

Rosenbaum: [Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene] Gold announced that…a “consigliere” to the Carmine Tramunti family had been arrested in connection with a truck hijacking. Then Pressman attacked: the fastest voice in New York. His trick was to break in just before a speaker had finished, before anyone else could get the floor. Whenever Gabe Pressman decided to speak, the other reporters in New York could only listen….

As he called his office from a drugstore [no cell phones, remember?] he was, as usual, recognized.

“Gabe Pressman! You look better in person than on television!”

“That’s not good,” he said. “I make my living on television.”

She wasn’t the only person who had told him that. His raccoon eyes appeared dour and sunken on camera—eyes which had seen much and were slightly wearied by it. [For the photo at the top of this post, he must have been wearing lots of makeup, or else the image was heavily doctored.]

The main story that Pressman covered that day involved an attack by three men on two school buses in Queens. While other TV stations’ crew members conspicuously (with tripods) clustered around the plainclothes investigators, waiting for something to happen, Pressman talked with a bus driver, the police, a child who had been attacked, her mother and the school principal. More enterprisingly, he found an eyewitness whom he convinced to talk to him. After interviewing him on a side street, away from the stake-out, Gabe came back to the studio with a more nuanced story than his competitors presented.

Gabe lived for another 44 years after I met him, “working right up to his death,” in the words of the Times obit. He never lost his verve for uncovering the next story. And at a time when even reports by “objective” news organizations often seem tinged with bias, he held fast to his conviction that journalists should report all sides of a story fully and fairly.

“For the past 12 years,” I wrote in my Quill piece, “he has registered as an independent voter, preferring to forfeit his vote in the primaries than to give any appearance of bias.”

Pressman restated his credo in his Facebook essay posted just eight weeks ago—WILL OLD-FASHIONED, OBJECTIVE JOURNALISM COME BACK?. Here’s an excerpt (but I urge you to read the whole thing):

In this era when newspapers and television are overrun with people expressing opinions instead of news, forgive me for being nostalgic about the good old days when I grew up in print journalism.

We were told that every story had more than one side and our job was to get all sides into our story. That was defined by the editors and, later, in TV, by producers.

It was more than “he said, she said” accounts of news. It involved a sincere effort to get the very flavor of a story into what you wrote or presented. Lamentably, the world has changed. We have evolved—or devolved—into a business where the facts are far less important than opinions….

I cannot believe that old-fashioned journalism is going or gone. It’s needed more than ever. And we can hope that, in the democratic tradition of America, it will come back.

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