UPDATES with more information below.
Gabe Pressman, a son of the Bronx whose tenacity and style reflected the city he covered as New York’s best-known television reporter and commentator for more than six decades, died this morning in the city he loved. His death was confirmed by WNBC-TV, which had been his home since 1980. He was 93 and most recently reported on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in March.
Among the first, if not the first, local newsmen to move from print journalism to television, Pressman was never one to read wire-service copy in front of a camera. Following an early career in newspapers that took him from The Newark Evening News to the World-Telegram, Pressman believed in shoe-leather reporting and, more important, in never taking no for an answer. That was especially true for the politicians he covered with the bone-clenching determination of a terrier. He was happily a gadfly no matter which shade of red or blue was ensconced in Gracie Mansion, pushing liberals like John V. Lindsay and David W. Dinkins, and conservatives like Rudolph Giuliani with equal fervor on issues of policy, transparency and promises unfulfilled.
For his labors, he earned 11 Emmy Awards as well as the Peabody and George Polk awards.
From the early 1950s on, Pressman covered events of national import, notably the Civil Rights movement, the rise of anti-war sentiment in the Vietnam era, papal visits and presidential elections. He understood early the power of the medium and made himself a master of short-form documentaries in the style of Edward R. Murrow, championing the homeless, the infirm and mentally ill, the poor and the disenfranchised.
In his later years, as his stature as first among equals loosened some of the traditional bonds of straight-arrow reporting, he grew more outspoken on issues close to his heart, especially as a supporter of Israel and thorn in the side of entrenched pols who, in his eyes, had little regard for the people who voted them into positions of authority.
Pressman interviewed every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton, as well as world leaders from Fidel Castro and Martin Luther King Jr. to Marilyn Monroe, Casey Stengel and the Beatles. He was equally adept at stand-ups in front of burning buildings and roundtable debates with local and national political candidates such as Alfonse D’Amato and Charles Schumer. Short of stature, typically rumpled and bespectacled, Pressman stood out, Columbo-like, from the crowd and always found the camera. Early on, when police typically paraded suspects in high-profile cases before the press, Pressman was always on the front lines calling out questions, as he did in 1959, when two members of a Latino gang called the Vampires, young men known as The Cape Man and The Umbrella Man, were booked on murder charges. The arrests – and much of the subsequent press coverage – inflamed already heated anti-immigration tensions in the city. In clips from the time, Pressman can be seen calling out questions: “How do you feel about killing those two boys?” he asked. “Are you sorry?” and”Why did you belong to a gang?”
Pressman was just as likely to look into stories that revealed the widening disparity between Gotham’s haves and have-nots, especially during the 1970s, when the city came to the brink of bankruptcy and crime seemed out of control. It frequently was Pressman who put human faces to those on the losing end of that historical arc: street people, those who couldn’t afford medical care, those whose children were being poorly educated in de facto segregated schools. Pressman had the essential tool of the journalist: A certain fearlessness about asking questions and pursuing honest answers, no matter how difficult.
In one interview, he noted his love of city politics, referring to the press room at City Hall: ”If I die, I suppose I want my ashes sprinkled in Room 9,” he told The New York Times. ”Although I don’t know if the present occupants would like it too much.” The best part of that quote is, of course, the most revealing about Pressman’s temperament. It’s the word “if.”