By the hundreds they swarmed into studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Plaza last Thursday night to pay tribute to a television icon. There were politicians, journalists and a horde of public officials; a snapshot of the New York City government and media social scene spanning the past half-century. It was a very special birthday party indeed. Not only was Gabe Pressman turning 80, he was also celebrating 50 years as a broadcast journalist.
The man once dubbed “The Human Trenchcoat” was dressed in a casual suit, his dark hair combed flat, his short stocky frame hunched forward, as he embraced his many friends and former foes. Surrounded by his wife and several of his children, Pressman, the original Energizer bunny, allowed himself a rare moment of reflection.
“The most important thing for younger people is to have a sense of history,” he told the crowd, which included many young colleagues from WNBC’s News Channel 4.
To tell the story of the history of local television news coverage is to tell the story of Gabe Pressman. The collection of images from the video reel prepared in his honor only disclosed a small part of the tale. There was Gabe on an early morning walk with Harry Truman. There he was again grilling Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. There was Gabe at the airport interviewing a young John Lennon, as the Beatles arrived in America for the very first time.
Yet, to truly appreciate Gabe Pressman is to realize that he started covering City Hall for the New York World Telegram And Sun in 1949. Fifty-five years and nine mayors later, Gabe Pressman is still going strong. To say he embodies the evolution of local TV news reporting is hardly a stretch. As the first broadcaster in New York City to take a microphone outside a studio, he is widely recognized in broadcast circles as the pioneer on the legendary “man on the street” reporting technique. Day in and day out, he has continued to file as many as three stories a day, outworking men and woman not only half his age, but a third of his age as well.
And then there’s his name – Pressman. It’s as if he was born to be a journalist.
“It was destiny,” said Matt Braatz, a senior director at WNBC, who like most of his colleagues remembers sitting at home as a child, watching Pressman on his parents’ television screen.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Pressman was almost immediately attracted to newspapers, yet even as a child he had a special fascination with microphones. He had a chance to dabble with both in the early stages of his career. He graduated from New York University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Government and then served three years in the Navy as an officer on a submarine chaser in the South Pacific during World War II. He returned to New York in 1946 to attend the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Upon graduation he was awarded a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship and spent the next 15 months freelancing from Europe, for radio and newspapers. He was one of the first western journalists to report from behind the Iron Curtain, visiting concentration camps in Poland at a time when they were still operational. He reported from Eastern Europe for The New York Times and for Edward R. Murrow’s celebrated radio news program.
After five years as a print reporter, he began his broadcasting career in 1954, as the first “roving reporter” for WRCA radio and television, which later became WNBC-TV. Aside from an eight-year stint at CBS in the 1970s, he has remained there ever since.
Throughout the years, the street has remained his forte. Colleagues say that he can’t walk down the street without people stopping to talk to him. Yet unlike many big-name news personalities, whose fame has made then distant, Pressman still connects with everyday people. Most refer to him as Gabe. In fact, he and New York have long been on a first-name basis.
“People just like to talk to him,” said Inara DeLeon, his personal producer for the past 11 years. “They still want to tell him what’s going on.”
DeLeon, who by now knows him as well as anyone, calls Pressman an “intelligent everyman.” She credits his staying power with his enduring youthful exuberance. “He says I’m his office wife,” she said. “But I call him my office child.”
In many ways, Pressman has remained a kid at heart and journalism has remained his favorite toy. He has repeatedly claims never to have played golf or have any other serious hobbies saying that reporting “is what I do.”
And he has no intention of changing that. One insider said that Pressman has some form of a “lifetime contract” with WNBC, and he will most likely “work till he drops.”
The morning following his party, Pressman was out on the street just like any other day, filing yet another story for the 5 p.m. newscast. DeLeon admitted that while that party may be over, she was saving the guest list — to use it for his 90th birthday party.