Class of 1956
Whether in television or print, Selwyn Raab has compiled a remarkable record as an investigative reporter. He has stated, however, that he doesn't like the words “investigative journalism”; instead, he believes in enterprise and patience. Raab took those qualities and became a leading authority on organized crime and other forms of chicanery. His work also spawned one of television’s most popular TV detectives and, more important, he helped free three men who had been wrongly convicted of murder. He has been a reporter for The New York World-Telegram & Sun, where he unearthed his biggest story; a producer and news editor at NBC and a producer at WNET, uncovering corruption in the New York City school system, methadone clinics and prisons; and for 26 years, a reporter at The New York Times, specializing in covering organized crime and the criminal justice system.
He is the co-author of “Mob Lawyer,” a 1994 book written with self-described Mafia mouthpiece Frank Ragano, and the best-selling “Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires.” Of the latter book, published in 2005, a review in The Times noted: “For Raab, a veteran reporter who has spent decades chronicling the city’s not-so-wiseguys, this book amounts to a kind of lifetime achievement award, granted for long years shouting questions at handcuffed men named Momo and Quack-Quack . . . What makes Raab so wonderful is that he eschews legend and suspect anecdotage in favor of a Joe Friday-style just-the-fact-ma’am approach.”
In a career that lasted more than 40 years, Raab has been singled out for numerous awards, among them the Best Television Reporting Award (1973) and Best Feature Story Award (1984) by the New York Press Club; the Heywood Broun Memorial Award (1974); a Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild of New York (1975); and a New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association Award (1985). The College presented him with a Townsend Harris Medal in 2009.
A native New Yorker, Raab was born on June 28, 1934 and grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, surrounded by bookmakers, con artists and gangsters — individuals he would later cover professionally. He attended Seward Park High School, then entered City College, where he was campus correspondent for The Times and an editor of Observation Post. In that role, he was suspended and censured twice by a student-faculty committee for writing editorials deemed too controversial. He came away from that experience with what he called “key lessons” for working on newspapers and in television: “1. Never seek safe harbors to avoid contentious but important issues. 2. Never sacrifice integrity or fundamental principles — especially if there is a clear distinction between right and wrong on vital questions.”
From 1960 to 1966, Raab was a reporter for The New York World-Telegram & Sun, where he covered the case of George Whitmore Jr., a man convicted of murdering two young women in 1963. Raab began looking into the case and ended up pursuing it for eight years. He proved that Whitmore was elsewhere on the day of the killings and helped clear him. It took seven more years to locate a witness whose testimony exonerated Whitmore from an unrelated attempted rape conviction. Raab wrote a book about the case (“Justice in the Back Room,” 1967) and CBS bought the television rights, transforming Raab into a fictional detective named Theo Kojak, famously portrayed by Telly Savalas. The series ran for five years.
Over the next eight years, Raab worked in television, at NBC and WNET. In 1974, he moved to The Times. During this period, his reporting reopened the triple-murder convictions of boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter and his co-defendant, John Artis, and led to the ultimate dismissal of all accusations against them. Both men were cleared after serving lengthy prison sentences.
Raab left The Times in 2000, wrote “Five Families,” and consulted on organized crime for TV documentaries, primarily on the History and Biography channels. He is working on scripts for a planned 10-part television series based on “Five Families.”