When veteran television news reporter Gabe Pressman receives the First Hadassah Southern NJ Region Associates’ “Leadership and Commitment” Award on Sept. 23, he plans to speak very little about the Middle East.
“I don’t want to get into a political discussion about Israel,” he told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 19 phone interview. “I plan to talk about my life and my career, and if they ask questions about Israel I will try to answer them.”
The proceeds from the brunch at the Forsgate County Club in Monroe Township will benefit stem cell research at the Hadassah Medical Organization, which runs two state-of-the-art hospitals in Jerusalem.
The cause pleases Pressman, who has reported from the hospitals during more than two dozen working trips he has made to Israel.
“I was very impressed by Hadassah Hospitals and the way Arab and Israeli doctors and nurses work together. It was a completely nonpolitical atmosphere,” he said. “I still feel connected with Israel because I’m Jewish and I have relatives there.”
Generally considered the “dean” of the New York press corps, Pressman practically invented the way broadcasters covered the city’s affairs.
In 1976, he began covering events in the Middle East for WNBC-TV, including the airplane hijacking and rescue at Entebbe Airport.
A year later, Pressman returned to cover Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s unprecedented visit to Israel.
On another occasion, he interviewed Moshe Dayan, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and later the country’s foreign and defense minister.
“I asked him a reporter’s question, looking in terms of a future obituary. I said, ‘What do you hope your legacy will be?’ Dayan looked at me almost angrily and said, ‘When you are dead, you are D-E-A-D.’”
On a visit to the region in 1988 to cover the first Intifada, a standard question he posed to nearly everyone he interviewed was “Can there be peace between Arab and Jew?”
Asked to reflect on that prospect nearly a quarter-century later, Pressman told NJJN, “I am pretty pessimistic about it. There is a bigger conflict going on between the Western world and the Muslim world. The conflict between Arab and Jew is mixed up with that, but it is really much broader now.”
Pressman’s career began with a brief stint as a reporter on the now defunct Newark Evening News, then five years at the New York World-Telegram.
One early guiding force was Burt McDonald, his “grumpy city editor” at the World-Telegram. “His philosophy was ‘All politicians are guilty until proved innocent,” said Pressman.
Casting aside a chance to become the political editor at the World-Telegram, Pressman took a gamble and left for the unfamiliar precincts of local radio news at WRCA, the NBC station in New York.
“When I arrived back in 1954, I didn’t realize I was blazing a new trail. I began running around town with a tape recorder.”
One of his best-known assignments was on the station’s morning show hosted by comedians Bob and Ray, who satirized him gently as “Roving Reporter Wally Balloo.”
But the job was fraught with technical difficulties. “There were many low moments when I was starting out and my tape recorder malfunctioned,” he said.
One of his most memorable moments was flying in a Coast Guard plane to bear witness as the Italian cruise ship Andrea Doria sank off the coast of Nantucket in 1956. From his vantage point, “It was like a toy in a bathtub,” he recalled.
Pressman has dogged every New York City mayor from William O’Dwyer to Michael Bloomberg. He began covering presidents with Harry Truman (after he left office in 1953), and took time to aim his microphone and camera at such visiting celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles. (This reporter worked as a producer for Pressman at WNBC-TV from 1987 to 1992.)
After six decades as a reporter, Pressman said he “mourns the passing of the age of aggressive journalists, of being unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer. Under Bloomberg and others like him, the press has become more of an inconvenience to politicians, who literally put up barriers and pens to insulate us from the people we are supposed to be covering.”
He also laments over “the courageous pontificators” on cable television networks “who never go out and talk to people but have an opinion about everything. They read polls, and that’s what they base their opinions on. I think that’s disgusting.”
Asked the same question he once posed to Moshe Dayan, Pressman laughed.
“My legacy is I was there at the right time. I had a chance to pioneer the art of confronting politicians and public officials with a camera, and I was able to be a trailblazer,” he said.