Gabe Pressman, WNBC/4’s longtime political correspondent and commentator, has died, according to Channel 4. He was 93.
Pressman died in his sleep early Friday at a Manhattan hospital.
Known as the “dean” of New York TV news reporters, he felt it was an honorarium he neither sought nor laid claim to. But after 60 years on the air — Pressman was in fact the first TV reporter in New York — the title was inevitable, finally inescapable.
For a stretch of time, from the ’70s and well into ’90s, Pressman was easily the most visible reporter on local TV, materializing at every major political, cultural and news event since the early ’60s. He interviewed The Beatles when they first invaded the city in 1964. He held prominent news-making interviews with President Dwight Eisenhower, also with Fidel Castro and Golda Meir. He was at Woodstock, too — easily distinguished in the 1970 documentary about the festival as the man with a microphone and short hair.
He was long-esteemed as a political reporter covering City Hall and its succession of mayors. Those mayors, however, would have used a word other than “esteem.” Rudy Giuliani was a wary subject, both as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and as mayor. Pressman hounded him, and when Giuliani attempted to place restrictions on press access at City Hall, Pressman howled. Giuliani ultimately relented.
Yet when Channel 4 threw a 70th birthday party for Pressman, the mayor turned up and draped his arm around his old antagonist. They were all smiles. The next day, they were not.
New York Magazine once listed him on its “most overrated New Yorkers” list along with George H.W. Bush, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Both cherished the dubious claim so much that they went on to create The Most Overrated New Yorkers Club, with Pressman and Bush as charter members.
Pressman had an old-fashioned mien, both in work and style. He was the classically rumpled newsman who appeared to have slept in his suit the night before. He spoke in a growl. He displayed a disregard for the cosmetic niceties of television, and if makeup had ever been applied before a live report, no one could probably remember the occasion.
At Channel 4, he became a mentor to generations of reporters, and anchors, too. One of those, John Miller — a hotshot reporter who covered John Gotti and the mob — went on to join ABC News, and is now the deputy commissioner of the NYPD.
Pressman never left local news for the networks, and never wanted to. As he said in an interview with Newsday in 1999, “I liked being a well-known fish in a small pond. To be known by the sanitation man, the cop, the firefighter, was a thrill and still is. When somebody recognizes me and starts talking to me like they feel they know me, then I feel like the guardian of the flame.”
His news director at the time, Paula Madison, said, “He gets a real satisfaction from knowing that he’s helped somebody. He likes knowing that he has used his ability to resolve some of the outstanding confusion that reigns in his city.”
Born in the Bronx in 1924, he attended Morris High School, then enlisted in the Navy, where he served as a combat and naval communications officer during the invasion of the Philippines. Eventually returning stateside, he joined the New York World Telegram and Sun, as city hall reporter covering the mayoralty of Robert Wagner. He then joined WRCA radio, then WNBC, becoming the city’s first on-air reporter. Pressman wasn’t quite sure what the job entailed, nor was the station. In hiring Pressman, an executive wrote in a memo that the station should “hire a newspaperman to go around and capture the actualities of the city.”
Pressman went on to capture those actualities. In his early stint at the station, he was omnivorous and omnipresent, filing four reports a day for the station. “I was obsessed,” he recalled. “I wanted to cover everything that happened in New York. I didn’t want to miss anything. It was slightly insane.”
In 1972, he joined WNEW/5 (now WNYW) and returned eight years later to Channel 4, where he remained the rest of his career. Pressman, in fact, is believed to be the longest-tenured employee of NBC. The former CEO of NBC, Bob Wright, bestowed a lifetime contract — not just a rarity but unprecedented for a news employee.
During his second tour at Channel 4, he settled down to about two stories per day. Nevertheless, he and the station once calculated that he had filed some 32,000 stories between the mid-1950s and 2000. Suffice it to say, that was a record then, and one that still stands — and likely always will.
In the early 1960s, he co-anchored with Bill Ryan a local newscast, “The Pressman-Ryan Report” on Channel 4, and also anchored a longtime Sunday morning public affairs series, “News Forum.”
Pressman is survived by his second wife, Vera, whom he met in 1967, a son from that marriage, and three children from his first marriage.