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Local Hero

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To move through New York City with television reporter Gabe Pressman is to experience the megalopolis as a small town. "Hiya, Gabe," says a doorman. "Hey, Gabe," says a taxi driver. "Hello, Gabe," says Rudy Giuliani, the eighth mayor that Pressman has covered so far. "Hi. Howareya," Pressman says. After forty years on TV, he and New York are on a first-name basis.

Back in 1954 Dwight Eisenhower was outlining the "domino theory" of communist expansion, Elvis Presley was cutting his first commercial record, and the Dow was finally breaking 400. "Three Coins in the Fountain" was on the radio and Rear Window on the silver screen. Also in 1954, Pressman was helping to invent local broadcast journalism. He was, in fact, the first broadcaster in New York to take his microphone outside the studio to cover stories on the street. And there he remains.

Local broadcast journalism, of course, has mutated wildly over forty years, and so have its values. Pressman and TV journalists like him--those still trying to make solid television stories out of complicated and controversial community issues--remain loyal to its flickering core. "It's hard to defend the body-bag end of it. It's hard to defend the sleaze and sensationalism," he says. "But occasionally we have these little gems..."

8:30 A.M.

Gabe Pressman is nervous. He is covering a mid-May. conference about city health care reform--an important story, but complex and nonvisual. He has only himself to blame, since the night before he had talked his desk into letting him check this out. The fact that the city hall press corps is ignoring the affair is not easing Pressman's mind, and his only television competition at the event is from New York 1, the ubiquitous cable channel that covers just about everything (see "New York 1: Upstart in the Big Apple," January/February). "This is a New York Times story," Pressman grumbles. "'It's not even a Daily News story."

He scans the crowd of policy wonks at the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine, on Fifth Avenue, and sips his decaf coffee, looking glum. Pressman will never be mistaken for Peter Jennings. He is seventy years old and short, his hair combed flat in the Wildroot Creme Oil style of about 1958. His face is somewhere between Peter Lorre and a bulldog. The Atlantic Monthly once described him as "the Human Trenchcoat," and today he's wearing a big one, its multiple pockets stuffed with pens and notebooks, two pairs of glasses, a portable telephone, a book of phone numbers, and an electronic pager that he periodically pulls out and checks. Under the trenchcoat is a blue suit that is draped somewhat awkwardly over his fireplug frame. Pressman is not known for sartorial splendor. "A guy we worked with used to shout, 'Hey, Gabe, do they sell clothes where you got that suit?'" says a former colleague at Pressman's station, WNBC-TV, the NBC owned and operated Channel 4.

Pressman shakes a few hands, including that of a high municipal official whom he questions about his chosen angle for today--the possible conversion of some of the city's public hospitals into private institutions, a controversial issue. New York runs twenty-two medical institutions and, since they serve legions of people without health insurance, the losses are staggering. The mayor wants to let corporations run a handful of those institutions as a cost-cutting experiment. His opponents fear that the privatized hospitals would avoid serving the city's sickest and poorest in order to insure a profit.

"What does privatization mean for the poor?" Pressman asks the city official.

"Well, for a while, it means that things will get worse for them," the official says. "It depends on the economy." He elaborates, then hastens to add: "I'm just telling you this because of our friendship. If this was part of your story..."

"Your ass would be in a sling, right?" Pressman says.

"Right," says the official.

Pressman heads off to work the phones, striding like a man on a mission.

Pressman's father, a Bronx dentist who would rather have been a magician, once rigged up a microphone in the family bathroom so that nine-year-old Gabe could broadcast imaginary baseball to the living room. He always liked microphones, he says; but he always liked newspapers too. By 1949, after a three-year stint in the Navy, followed by journalism school, more than a year free-lancing in Europe, and a cup of coffee or two in newsrooms around New York and New Jersey, Pressman was working in the city hall bureau of the New York World-Telegram.

"But I was still captivated by the microphone," he recalls, and he was always ready to take part in reporters' roundtable shows. These, in turn, led to a side job: putting together an audio report on how the week had gone for the mayor of New York--Robert Wagner at the time--for a regular slot on one of Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg's radio news-and-chat shows. So as he covered city hall for the Telegram, Pressman lugged around a handcranked tape recorder, twenty pounds or so, and "for $50 a week I spent Saturday and Sunday editing the audiotape that I had collected. On Monday morning, Tex and Jinx would say, 'Well, Gabe, what kind of week did the mayor have?' And I would tell them, 'Well, he pigeon-proofed city hall.' I'd have the sounds of pigeons, from some pet shop, in the background."

In 1954, WRCA radio and WRCA-TV, which later would become WNBC and WNBC-TV, began looking for someone "to run around town and collect 'actualities,' whatever that meant," Pressman says, for the station's newscasts. Pressman was offered the job and took it, despite misgivings about leaving print. The following year he began his move over to television, roving the city in a Chevy wagon. The station had "a kind of desk for coordination purposes, but the guy didn't know what to do with me. So I'd go in and say, 'What's going on, Bill?' and he'd say, 'Nothin', it's dead.' And I'd look at the wires and see an international financier, strangled in his apartment, and I'd say, 'My God, how long have you had this?"

Some print reporters were not pleased with Pressman and the other TV news people who were starting to pop up at news events around the city. There was a sense that



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