By LINDA G. RASTELLI
Most days, JoAnn Pileggi’s life is like any suburban moms as she runs after her 22-month-old twins, Faith and Francis, and five-year-old, Julian. But on Mondays and Fridays, she’s chasing down fires, accidents, murders and natural catastrophes as a Fox news correspondent for channel 9 and channel 5.
Candid and unpretentious off-camera, the Fair Haven resident met her husband of 12 years, T.J. Foderaro, at a journalism conference. “He was on the print side and I was on the broadcast journalism side, and we met at a dinner and started talking,” she says.
Do people recognize you when you’re in public?
Once in a while people will take a second look or say, ‘I think I’ve met you before.’ Normally, I dont wear makeup, my hairs maybe in a ponytail. If I say I’m a journalist, people ask, ‘So who do you write for?’ When I say, ‘It’s TV,’ they say, ‘So you write the news?’ People expect you to look the same as you look on television.
How often do you work here in Monmouth County?
When the weather gets bad, I cover flooding stories. Also beach erosion. I’ve been very fortunate to get the plum assignments of covering Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen when they play locally. And some tragic stories. A kidnapping in Brick that happened about four years ago became a national story, and that got me on Greta Van Susterens show.
Your husband is deputy business editor at the Star-Ledger and writes a wine column. His late father, Sal, was editorial page editor at the Asbury Park Press; his mother, Jane (better known as ‘Tinker’), former Red Bank Register city editor, teaches journalism at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and his sister, Lisa Foderaro reports for the New York Times from Westchester. What’s it like to be part of a family of so many journalists? Do you ever compete for stories with family members?
It’s fun. At first we had a little print/broadcast tension, but now it’s turned into serious mutual respect. We talk shop a little, but there’s no real competition. There was only one time in ten years that my sister-in-law and I were on the same story together in Westchester County. And my deadlines are different. I may get the same amount of information, but I have to condense it into 120 seconds, whereas a print journalist might have 30 column inches to tell a story.
You reported recently on a teenage girl’s murder in Newark. Is it painful to interview survivors after a tragedy like that?
It’s hard not to get emotionally involved. Sometimes I’m amazed by peoples emotions after theyve lost a child. That they actually want to talk about it. I think there’s something about talking that makes them feel people care. There’s times when they say they dont want to talk. I’ll politely say, ‘I’m here if you want to talk.’ I never push anybody. That’s never been my style. I do have to be assertive. Sometimes I have to talk my way into an interview, but there’s a polite, respectful way to do it.
People say how awful reporters are. I will never ask, ‘How do you feel?’ It’s trite you know how they feel. Emotion does grip people in a story, it makes them think, ‘How did this happen? Can we stop this from happening?’
How do you respond to people who say the news should be about good things that happen, not doom and gloom?
I know the producers struggle with stacking the top of the show with murder and mayhem and death and destruction. In Chicago, they tried to do good-news newscast and it didn’t get any ratings. The German expression is schadenfreude. Theres a desire to see the bad things. Thats not to say we don’t cover issue-oriented news. In New Jersey, no one can, excuse the pun, steer clear of this toll road issue. Our station is going to make an effort to attend all of the Corzine meetings [about it]. Finding the right way to explain that story is important. It might not be as sexy or exciting as other stories.
Do you ever feel youre in danger on the job?
A few times. I was sent to cover a story about a baby who had suffocated between the crib mattress and the crib. Other news crews had knocked on the door and not been warmly received, so we didn’t go near the door. We had gotten interviews from neighbors and were putting the story together. We set up our truck across the street, down the block, and someone came out and said, ‘The family doesnt want you here.’ I said, ‘Were not in front of the house. We’re being respectful, but we have to do our story.’ The person left, and this band of angry people charged the truck. This man started violently screaming at me and reaching into the car trying to pull me out. My photographer grabbed me and pulled me away. The police came but didn’t arrest anybody. We all left. It was the father of the child. I kept saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for your loss.’ He was saying, ‘I’m going to find you, I’m going to get you and your family.’ I was so frightened and felt bad at the same time. But I knew we didn’t do anything wrong. Someone may say that we shouldn’t do the story. But we were covering a story that would teach people this can happen. Check your crib! So, we did the story, but didnt say on the air what happened [with the police].
Which story are you most proud of?
Last fall in New York City, some homeless advocates called all the stations and said that the Bloomberg administration might be changing its homeless policies. If a family didn’t get to a homeless intake center in the Bronx by five o’clock, they’d be turned away. I felt like I was in that movie, ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’ One boy told me, ‘I don’t want to sleep in my car tonight.’ Im welling up with tears right now and . . . We helped make a difference there.
Has broadcast journalism been a lifelong ambition?
I grew up outside Philadelphia, where Jessica Savitch was one of the first female anchors. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. She died tragically in a car accident. I was working seven days a week at one point, hoping it would lead to a full-time position. I was the morning anchor and reporter in Scranton, PA, for eight years. I was supposed to share video with the other [affiliate] station, and I’d routinely say no. I did that one too many times, and my contract wasn’t renewed. I learned my lesson. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. Soon after, channel 9 finally called me for an interview. When I had twins two years ago, they let me work two days a week. I worked through my pregnancies up until two weeks before, which was wild.
What qualities are most important for success in your field?
Humility, number one. Our industry has a reputation of people who are larger than life. The most successful journalists are humble and have an innate sense of humanity to know that you’re no different than anyone else. At my very first job in radio, the station owner said, ‘The most important thing you can ever do is keep your feet on the ground.’ I remember that to this day. I’m no better than any of the people I interview.