Navigating the 20th to 21st Centuries: Ed Rabel, Journalist and Educator

By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Ed Rabel about his career as a journalist and more recently contributing to the education of young people.

Rabel was a long-time journalist with both CBS and NBC when journalists were noted for doing reporting which informed rather than just provided an outlet for the political narrative of the moment.

That is why in our view, Rabel’s career as a journalist fits nicely into his more recent educational experiences teaching in the Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean and in West Virginia and Virginia high schools, currently in Rappahannock County, Virginia.

We wanted to talk with Rabel both because of the interesting life he has led, both in terms of his coverage of U.S. domestic issues, and his long-time role as a war correspondent, but equally in terms of getting his take on how journalism and education both need to be refocused on core skills, values, and debating the truth, without simply becoming elements of whatever the dominant social and political narrative of the day has become.

Here he has been clearly outspoken, and in preparing to sit down with him, we did some homework on pieces he had written since he left TV journalism.

We particularly liked an early version of cancel culture which revolved around Rabel had to say about local TV news. What he said then led the local TV news channel ensuring that he would not appear ion that local TV news channel, notably during his 2014 political campaign for Congress in Charleston, West Virginia.

“Ed Rabel has been banned from appearing on or being mentioned on WCHS TV in Charleston, West Virginia. Rabel is running as an independent for Congress in the state’s second Congressional District. Rabel, the former CBS and NBC newsman, was banned by WCHS TV news director Matt Snyder. Snyder didn’t like an op-ed article Rabel wrote last year for the Charleston Gazette.”

So what had Rabel said in that article that was so out of whack with reality as to be part of the early cancel culture effort?

Rabel had called local news “a colossal waste of time.”

“Instead of focusing on original reporting, the local stations are focused on cosmetics. Not a country for old men and women, the local television ‘news’ landscape is populated by bubble-heads and glib, young, sometimes pretty know-nothings.

“The truth is, they wouldn’t know a news story if it slapped them in the face.

“When was the last time you saw an investigative piece about, let’s see, the Massey Mine disaster? Or, how about, God forbid, an exclusive story that penetrated the precincts where politicians hide their secrets from the public?””

You certainly would not want an experienced national TV news journalist with many years of experience saying these things, notably because they are true.

So the cancel culture drill set in.

Not only did the news director for the local Charleston, West Virginia, bar coverage of Rabel’s independent campaign for Congress, but he was blocked from providing original news content by doing the cancel culture thing.

“In November 2013 WCHS was preparing a story on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“A WCHS news reporter wanted to interview Rabel for the story because in 1963 Rabel was the news director at WCHS and covered Kennedy’s June 20, 1963 visit to Charleston, West Virginia on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the state of West Virginia.

“On June 20, 1963, Rabel was reporting live from the state capitol grounds on Kennedy’s visit.

“After expressing his desire to interview Rabel about the events of the day, the news reporter was told that because of what Rabel wrote in March 2013 in the Charleston Gazette, Rabel would not be appearing on any of the station’s news programs and prohibited the reporter from interviewing Rabel.”

To take another aspect of how current 21st century life is clamping down on creative thought, he has written a range of pieces on how he views the challenges facing education today.

For example, in his review of his time in the Peace Corps, he nicely summed up of how bureaucracy is trumping reality in his look back at his time teaching in the Peace Corps.

This is what he wrote in a 2019 piece:

You get the point – Rabel is not shrinking violet, and frankly, to both us, talking with Rabel was more like our youth when once could have a discussion where the goal was not simply to add to your Instagram followers,

We will highlight in this article, three key aspects of the discussion we had with him which highlight key aspects of his life, and the importance of how a more traditional kind of journalism which we are missing today really is very important for the public debate.

The first revolved around his coverage of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Rabel described his coverage of the black movement in the 1960s as follows:

“I was hired by CBS News in 1966, and I was sent to the Atlanta Bureau, where my beat was the Civil Rights Movement. I covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but also those elements in the black community that wanted no part of the non-violence approach espoused by the SCLC, but wanted to try to confront White America, in other words, the Stokely Carmichael’s and the Rap Brown’s of the world.

“Martin Luther King, Jr.  was obviously the fundamental principal character person in the struggle for civil rights. And he did that through the non-violent philosophy. Which was put forth by Gandhi, of course. And it was a moment of time – 1996-1968 –before I went off to cover the war in Vietnam, that we were able to be on an almost daily coverage of this fantastic movement.

“King’s dynamic and purposeful program to gain the rights of the black Americans in part ended in the passage of the Civil Rights Act signed by Lyndon Johnson, and the Voting Rights Act. Those are pieces of legislation that have been chiseled away at in recent years.

“But one of the most interesting and, obviously for Dr. King, the most awful part of his entire movement was in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 when he was convinced that he should go to Memphis and lead the strike against the city by the sanitation workers. Most of them, of course, were black.

“And he didn’t want to do that. He was under attack in America at that time because of his anti-war Vietnam War stance. And also because the movement had been successful and had eliminated several aspects of segregation. He was really at a most critical point in his life and in the movement. And he was quite depressed when he went to Memphis, because of his lack of success in the realm of economics, and also with negative response to his anti-war movement.

“But, nonetheless he went to Memphis, and I was there in Memphis covering the protest. I shall never forget a scene in which Dr. King was in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, and before he was to lead a march on behalf of the sanitation workers, a federal marshal approached him in the parking lot of the motel with an injunction in his hand. And the injunction said that you cannot march in Memphis as you had planned.

“Dr. King looked at the injunction quite soberly, and he called over his lieutenant Andy Young, who would later become an ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter. “Come over here, Andy. Take a look at this injunction.” He called Jessie Jackson, who at that time was in bibbed overalls, I think he was only about 18 years old.

“And he said, “Come over here, Jessie.” And Andy Young, Jessie Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, who was King’s number two guy. Reverend Orange. All these iconic figures in the civil rights movement were all there surrounding King.

“And King, in addition to being a rather serious fellow, could be quite humorous, and so he looked at the injunction and all the civil rights leaders surrounding him looked at it very solemnly and he said, “Well, this injunction says we can’t march on Monday as we had planned. Well, you know, we don’t have time for such injunctions. We’re going to turn this injunction over to our attorneys. We just don’t have time for such injunctions. We’ve got some marching to do.”

“And everybody, including the federal marshal, broke into laughter over that. But King did go on to lead a march which ended in violence in downtown Memphis. He survived that march and pledged to lead another march, but he never got to do that, because of course he was assassinated by James Earl Ray.

“I had interviewed Dr. King just a few hours before he was gunned down. To this very day Dr. King has left a great legend for all of us to understand and live by.”

Second, we then discussed with him his experience as a war correspondent.

He went to Vietnam in 1970. He noted that this was America’s first television war, and as Rabel noted: “we reporters, especially broadcast reporters, transmitted into the homes of Americans all over the country the stories about the war. I put an emphasis on the fact that this was America’s first television war, because until that time we had gone to the movies and saw movie-toned news covering about the Korean War, and the World War II. But this time ,the latest information about what was going came each day.

“I volunteered to go for CBS news, because it was America’s first television war, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be able to tell that story.

“I went out to Saigon and the very first thing that happened is I reported in to the Military Assistant’s Command Vietnam, which oversaw reporters and each reporter was given a rank in the United States military.

“I was a major in the United States Army, and that meant that I could go out to Tan Son Nhut Air Base and get on any military helicopter, or any flight that was going anywhere in the country, and I could take my camera crew on any of those flights. Once I got out into the combat zones I could interview anybody I wanted to without any kind of restriction. And I was able then, virtually without censorship, to tell any story that I came across out there.

“These days if you’re a reporter and you are covering a war or a battle or a movement of troops or whatever, you cannot do this on your own. You’re not given a rank in the military, you’re confined to a particular unit or group in the military, and we call that embedding the reporters. And so you’re limited in what you see. You don’t have a chance to really cover the entire operation. So, it has changed dramatically in that sense.

“The North Vietnamese and the Vietcong prevailed in 1975, rolling into Saigon and taking over the government. It was obviously America’s first loss of a war anywhere in the world. And it was not until the operations against Saddam Hussein that the military recovered. Because that operation by the United States military was quite successful in driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

“I covered both of the Gulf Wars, and the guerrilla  wars in Central America when the old Soviet Union was still around trying to adjust power in the Western Hemisphere through Cuba. I covered Cuba, and I’ve been there more than 150 times since 1975 covering Cuba, and I interviewed Fidel Castro a number of times.

We obviously pursued the question of what it is like to interview Fidel Castro.

This is how Rabel described the experience and the challenge: “I met Fidel Castro in the early 1970s. He, obviously, was hardcore. The people of Cuba basically were so fed up with the Fulgencio Batista, the military dictator who was backed by the United States, and who fled Cuba on New Year’s Eve 1958, and Fidel came into Cuba, marched into Cuba from the Sierra Maestra eight days later into Havana and took over.

“So, it was less combat between Fidel’s revolutionaries, the bearded ones, and the government backed by the United States. Fidel took over and he was really extremely popular. But obviously he depended on the old Soviet Union to prop up his government. And when the decline and then collapse of the Soviet Union was underway and Gorbachev went to Havana and met with Fidel, and I covered that meeting.

“Gorbachev, said to Fidel, “You’ve got to integrate your economy with that of the Western Hemisphere.” Which would have meant, of course, he would have had to give up certain communist principles and adhere to our system in the Western Hemisphere. And he wasn’t about to do it. That then led to what you see today with regard to Cuba, a state which remains communist but in a uncertain place in its history or the world.

“As result of that, they faced key challenges as a result of that and have one of the more hardcore communist regimes as of today and face significant decline as well. We then returned to question about interviewing Fidel.

“I interviewed him a number of times, and he was really brilliant. He was a well-read guy who was obviously dedicated to communism. He was really a strong man on a horse.

“The thing about interviewing Fidel is that you asked him a question and about 25 minutes later you’d get in another word edgewise, because he was such a narcissist and he felt that he had answers. He was professorial, in a way, he would tell an entire story from beginning, middle, and end, and you had to put up with it because you couldn’t interrupt him.

“But I found that he was an egoist and egotistical. He ruled by, as all dictators do, by repression. And now he’s dead, and the leaders now are dying off, they’re in their 80s, and a new generation of Cubans are taking over. But they still have inherited the legacy of Fidel, and they aren’t giving up his dictatorial ways of governing, by any means.

“Fidel was an extraordinary man from a small island in the Caribbean who played a huge part on the world stage. It was pretty amazing.”

Thirdly, we then discussed how he saw the shift in journalism from focused on news as we used to know it to today’s narrative news approach.

Rabel underscored that “even though at the time, in the mid ’60s and ’70s, we at CBS, and I guess at NBC as well, we were mindful of ratings, we weren’t dependent on ratings to cover the news a certain way.

“In other words, Bill Paley, who hired guys like Edward R. Murrow to cover the Second World War, and Eric Sevareid  and all those iconic figures that we’re old enough to remember. That’s what the television news was comprised, or composed, of those giant figures who were real news people who did go out in the field with camera crews, as I did, and actually talked to people.

“But with the advent of cable news, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and all the rest, with social media, with cable, with the internet, all these channels are trying to get the eyeballs of a limited market. As a result, producers are under extreme pressure to basically dumb down the news in order to get the audience that they appeal to. And in addition to that, we no longer send the reporters out in the field much to interview people about what has happened, or what’s going on

“We have what we call talking heads on all of these outlets. And those people earn their living by being controversial as opposed to people like Walter Cronkite who read the news and said, “That’s the way it is, goodnight.” That’s the real difference, these days.”

We then turned finally to his time working as an educator, and his current experience while living in Rappahannock County, Virginia.

Rabel highlighted his experience as follows: “Rappahannock County is a rural county. The kids who show up at the high school where I am teaching are the sons and daughters of farmers and others, not necessarily farmers, of course. And there are also a number of Hispanic kids there who are the sons and daughters of people who come to harvest the crops.

“And so you have a diversity of kids in the Rappahannock County High School. The only high school in Rappahannock County, by the way. I love being in that setting and teaching kids from the 9th grade through the 12th grade. Because you get a real understanding of who these children are, and who the people are of the county.

“Over in West Virginia I teach in the high schools of Kanawha County, and there are many high schools there. I have taught in all of them. And so you get a diverse group of kids there as well. But it’s a different group of kids in Charleston, West Virginia. I don’t want to get bogged down in the politics of any particular place or any of that but suffice to say West Virginia has lost a huge amount of population, and so you’re left with an awful lot of poor people, and you see a lot of poverty there in Kanawha County.

“The people in Rappahannock County seem to be a bit better off than they are over there in West Virginia. And that’s a delight to be able to see the comparison and mix and match what’s going on.

“But my experience in Rappahannock County has been first rate. And I really enjoy being here and teaching English. Not just English, but also I’ve been teaching Spanish and government as well. And I do that as well over in West Virginia.

“I came back from a long career broadcasting, went to West Virginia where I was born and reared to try to pay back in some way. And I was doing it there and it’s kind of the same thing here in Virginia.

“That is my objective. I don’t know whether it’s worked or not for the people of West Virginia, or the people of Virginia here. But, having said that, I’m giving it a shot.”

To conclude, Ed Rabel put it very well in a 2021 piece which certainly Ed Timperlake and I firmly believe in: “It is the life in your years that counts.”

He certainly is proving that point existentially