Recounting a TV journalist’s life
Dear Mrs. Pagnotti,
Thank you for the recent letter informing me about your son Tony who is on TV in Asheville, North Carolina. I am sure, as you stated, he is a talented, hard-working and handsome reporter. However, there are no appropriate job opportunities for him at CBS at this time. I wish him the best of luck.
Walter Cronkite, September 1976
In spite of the answer the late mother of Tony Pagnotti got from the dean of all anchormen, the 22-year-old did not give up his television career. He went on to build it, mostly in Baltimore, for 45 years until his retirement last year at age 68.
Television viewers in Baltimore and beyond will immediately recognize Pagnotti from his more than 30 years on the local airwaves via WMAR and Fox 45.
Pagnotti covered the news, sat at the anchorman’s desk, and gave the weather reports, which included, to the delight of viewers, the day’s “hum-a-didity.”
Though no longer on the air, Pagnotti has not fully ceased spreading the news as he knows it. A resident of Columbia, he now teaches at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville. His course is called “the fundamentals of communication” — the same class he taught for a decade at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Last year, Pagnotti published a book, My Scripted and Unscripted Life: A Memoir of a TV Newsman.
In a recent interview with the Beacon, Pagnotti discussed his life on the air and at his writer’s desk, in and around Baltimore and other far-flung locales.
45 years on the air
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Pagnotti launched his TV career in North Carolina (see letter above), then worked his way up at stations in Ohio, Connecticut and New York before settling in Baltimore in 1985 at WMAR-TV.
In 2012, he switched over to Fox45, where he became a co-anchor on the weekend Morning News, then the station’s meteorologist.
Pagnotti recalled an incident when he was a hard-news reporter for News 4 New York, working out of the iconic 30 Rockefeller Center.
In what he called “an only-in-New York moment,” Pagnotti described what happened one day when he covered a train outage in a Manhattan subway station. As he started giving his live report amidst a crowd of stranded passengers, Pagnotti felt a hand reach into his back pants pocket for his wallet.
As he recalled in his memoir, “With one big swoop of my elbow, I swung around and grabbed my wallet.” The would-be pickpocket scurried away up the subway stairs while Pagnotti finished his report to the TV viewers at home.
‘Everyday people’ stories
The TV veteran noted that he has covered lots of “hard news,” like fires, murders and assorted mayhem, as well as lots of protests, politics and weather.
But his favorite reporting was, and always will be, on what is known as human interest stories. “I’ve gotten the most satisfaction from ‘everyday people’ stories,” he said.
“The world news has to be told. But a story about a little boy battling muscular dystrophy, or any feel-good story that brings hope and a ray of sunshine into the doom and gloom of most everyday news — that’s what was the most important story of the day for me.”
Pagnotti started writing what became a publishable manuscript 10 years ago as a required thesis for a Master’s Degree in Communications, which he earned at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore.
“I returned to school at age 55,” he said, noting that he wanted a master’s degree so that he could continue to follow his other career of teaching the up-and-coming generation how to communicate in an increasingly confusing world.
His master’s thesis evolved into a very human personal history that covers the ups, downs and other movements in the life of a TV journalist.
Pagnotti’s memoir doesn’t read as one written by a cockeyed optimist, especially when he describes contract renewal time at various TV stations.
Did Ted Koppel and David Brinkley in the past, or Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper now, have to go through the often-ugly contract negotiations and other wrangling with management that Pagnotti describes in his book?
“Television is filled with business people looking out for the ‘product,’” he said. “Everything depends on ratings. You can be on the top of the world one day; then, if your ratings go down, you go in the other direction.”
Pagnotti recognized that “feel good” stories were not a high priority for the top brass at stations.
“I didn’t enjoy doing fires, murders and the like,” Pagnotti said. “But I knew it came with the reportorial territory.
“I found the one way to avoid those hard-news assignments was to come up with enterprising feature stories. But it wasn’t an easy sell. When you’re up against the gatekeeper mentality, if it bleeds, it leads.”
Today’s ‘smorgasbord of news’
While he might have run into disputes with station managers, viewers were in Pagnotti’s camp all the way, according to Jamie Costello, one of WMAR-TV’s leading newsmen.
In a foreword to Pagnotti’s book, Costello calls Pagnotti “one of the best TV personalities Baltimore has ever seen,” adding, “This man could make you laugh, cry, sing and dance…in the same story.”
Now that Pagnotti is retired from the TV newsroom, from where and from whom does he get his news?
Well, he admitted, “comparatively fewer people are watching the traditional network newscast now. There are so many ways to get the news, so many sources.”
“Now,” Pagnotti said, “you have to be strategic to be well-informed. You can’t just watch Fox or CNN or MSNBC. There’s still newspapers, there’s on-line streaming, there’s radio.
“Nowadays, to stay informed, you need a smorgasbord of news.”
Pagnotti’s memoir is available on Amazon. He will read from the book and sign copies at the Catonsville Senior Center on July 12 at 1 p.m., Seven Oaks Senior Center in Perry Hall on August 12 at 10:30 a.m., and East Columbia 50+ Center in Columbia on Sept. 22 at 7 p.m.