Crime Pays

The Gospel According to John Gotti

The last gasp of John Gotti gave the New York press a choice: They could glamorize a flashy, invincible gangster or expose a brutal thug who caused the downfall of his own empire. The results were revealing: the New York Post and the Daily News rolled out sensational coverage for days, while Newsday offered a sober account of the crook's rap sheet and legacy. The New York Times tried to have it both ways, splashing Gotti's stylish mug on the front page, reciting his criminal record lower in the obit—and ending with a quote about how the mob boss was a self-styled "caesar" and "emperor."

Don't get me wrong. Gotti's death is a legitimate story, and it I still get chills reading about the assassination of Paul Castellano and the three trials that ended in Gotti's acquittal, before he was convicted in 1992. Coverage of his funeral has a certain "married to the mob" appeal. But it's sickening to hear Gotti lionized in the press by so many people who benefited from their relationships with him.

Thus, to Gotti lawyers Bruce Cutler and Gerald Shargel, he was a "champion" and "one of a kind." To Jerry Capeci and Gene Mustain, co-authors of two books about Gotti, he was "the most famous gangster in the world." Postcolumnist Steve Dunleavy called him one of a "dying breed," while Dunleavy's colleague Cindy Adams insisted that "the Gotti I knew was a gentleman." Post columnist Victoria Gotti remembered her father's "kindness and generosity" and so on. Obviously the man had charisma, but so do many other murderers. Let us show some restraint.

The media frenzy started on June 11, when Gotti's obit landed on the front page of the Post, the News, Newsday, and the Times. The Post ran 13 pages of Mafia folklore that day, while the News published a 16-page Gotti wraparound. There were charts, time lines, and countless photo scrapbooks. On June 12, the Post began publishing excerpts from a book Capeci and Mustain wrote in 1988, while the News began serializing a Capeci/Mustain book from 1996. On June 13, the Times snuck in a Capeci/Mustain op-ed on the rise and fall of the "celebrity gangster."

To their credit, Capeci and Mustain are self-conscious about the mutually exploitative relationship between Gotti and the press. Their first excerpt in the News explained how the media "gushing" started in the wake of the 1985 Castellano hit, when Gotti's first big trial drew fashion writers, gossip columnists, and magazine scribes. For gullible journalists, the mob boss was not a villain, but a well-dressed, witty, "swashbuckling rogue." For Gotti, reporters were not nosy intruders, but useful tools for winning public admiration.

As a result of this love affair between the media and the don, we heard endless accounts of his $2000 Brioni suits, his Mercedes, and his $100 tips. Vanity Fair once called him "America's first yuppie don." But now that he's dead, maybe we should retire the fascination with all the things his dirty money could buy.

Not every journalist has been wearing rose-colored glasses. On June 11, the Daily News's Pete Hamill wrote a great column on Gotti's eyes, which showed intelligence and humor, but also "a savage capacity for injury." That same day, the News's Michael Daly compared Gotti to the ground-zero heroes, noting that by contrast, the thug's death was "hardly worth public mention." Also on the first day, the News ran an inventory of the don's victims, noting that "for all his fame as a celebrity mobster, John Gotti was a ruthless, cold-blooded killer."

To be blunt, this was a guy who liked to see people beaten with baseball bats, burned with lit cigarettes, riddled with bullets, and dumped in the ocean. He once said by way of intimidation, "You tell this punk, I, me, John Gotti, will sever your head off." The other salient point to remember, as many officials pointed out last week, is that Gotti actually brought down the Mafia. Newsday's Anthony DeStefano nailed this on the first day, when he reported that Gotti attracted too much attention from law enforcement, promoted people on the basis of loyalty instead of competence, and got caught repeatedly on wiretaps, which led to many convictions. Behind the legend was a failure who died in prison.

Media hype tends to generate its own backlash. A series of angry letters to the editor appeared in the Post on June 12 and in the Daily News on June 13. One writer told the Post he was "disappointed" by the paper's decision to "glorify and romanticize a criminal." Another reader noted sarcastically, "I guess it's good to know that one day, if my child becomes a slippery murdering unrepentant criminal pariah, he might gain a glowing full-color goodbye spread in the Daily News." Yet another reader echoed Rudy Giuliani, who has said the press should have lavished more praise on Ben Ward, New York's first black police commissioner, who died on the same day as Gotti.

Covering a story like Gotti's death is always going to be a balancing act, and no one wants to miss a juicy story. But there was something especially dissonant about the Post's Gotti coverage. On June 11, the Post published an editorial that seemed to apologize in advance for the paper's criminal hagiography. The anonymous writer complained that while Gotti was all too often "romanticized" and given "fawning attention" by the media, in fact he was a "ruthless killer."

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