The Myth of Godfather Journalism
July 23, 1979
A few hours after Carmine Galante was blown away in Bushwick with the cigar clenched in his mouth, a federal prosecutor began to reach out for his undercover informants in the mafia. No law enforcement agency had a tail on Galante the day he was shot, and the prosecutor wanted to know who arranged for the execution.
His informants didn’t know anything, either. But they all get money or immunity from law enforcement for providing information, and they were afraid to admit they knew no secrets. The informants feared they would lose status, or credibility, or even their jobs if they confessed their ignorance. So they all invented theories for Lilo’s demise and attributed them to “word on the street” and other ephemeral sources.
Soon reporters were calling this federal prosecutor, demanding the inside story of why Galante was hit. The prosecutor did not know, just as his informants did not know. But he could not confess his ignorance to the media, just as his undercovers could not confess their ignorance to him. One television reporter said to the prosecutor: “Just give me your rankest speculation.”
The prosecutor is close to indicting a mafioso of unusual political influence. He was tempted to anoint this targeted gangster as the next godfather, so that his indictment would receive more publicity, and he would get a bigger budget. He knew that Galante was not the godfather. He knew the mob hasn’t had a boss of bosses since Lucky Luciano, but that the media has a need to name new godfathers with the frequency of new Miss Subways. The prosecutor, unusually honorable, said “no comment” to the reporter. The disappointed reporter, who had never interviewed an actual working hoodlum in his life, announced he would just have to “work from the clips.”
The preceding anecdote is true and accurately reflects the state of the art of godfather journalism; most mafia reporting is a consumer fraud.
For example, the headline in Sunday’s Daily News said: RIVALS FEASTED WHILE GALANTE DIED. The story reported that “20 mob bosses” celebrated Galante’s execution by having lunch at Bamonte’s Restaurant at 32 Withers Street in Brooklyn. The detailed account described “rented limousines” lined up outside the restaurant, and even reported that “a phone call to Bamonte’s — minutes after the execution — advised the chairman of the crime conference that the contract on Galante had been carried out.”
However, the New York City Police Department, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, and the federal Organized Crime Strike Force all say they have no knowledge of such an event occurring. The proprietor of Bamonte’s denies the whole story, and his attorney promises he will sue the News. The idea of a lavish linguini feast of celebration by 20 mob bosses would have been a nice scene for a movie. But is it true?
In fact, the public’s impression — and much of the media’s knowledge — about the mafia owes a large debt to the imagery of Hollywood. Most people think gangsters act like George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Richard Widmark, Al Pacino, and Marlon Brando.
The power of the film fantasy is so great that when Joey Gallo was growing up in Brooklyn he went to see Richard Widmark play Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death a dozen times. Gallo, then an aspiring thug, began to imitate Widmark’s posture, body language, slang, and style of dress. Years later, when Hollywood was preparing to make another syndicate movie, and Gallo was by then a chic mafia symbol, an actor asked Gallo if he could hang out with him to study some of his macho mannerisms, the same mannerisms that Gallo had borrowed from another actor a generation before.
This story suggests some of the difficulty in separating myth from reality, lore and legend from fact in understanding organized crime. Movies (and novels and Bob Dylan) have romanticized mafia dons. They are not immigrant populists, or outlaw philosophers with benevolent dignity, or tragic half-ethical super-dons who draw a fine moral distinction at pushing white powder.
Most mobsters would rather stick an icepick in your ear than work. Many are so cheap they won’t pay for their own cappuccino on Mulberry Street. Joey Gallo used to beat up his wife. Lucky Luciano was a pimp. Carmine Galante was an animal whose wealth came from importing, distributing, and selling the heroin that went into the veins of ghetto schoolchildren.
The mafia is not a hierarchical corporation. There is no single chief executive officer. There is no stenographer who takes shorthand minutes at board of directors’ meetings. There is no neat organization chart, no regular merit promotions. When Ed Kosner was fired as the editor of Newsweek, a press release went out saying he was being replaced by Lester Bernstein. When Lyman Hamilton was ousted as chief executive officer of ITT last week, it was announced that Rand Araskog, the senior executive vice-president, would replace Hamilton. But the mafia did not distribute a press release after Carlo Gambino died announcing that he was being replaced as godfather by Carmine Galante.
The fact is that Galante was nominated for godfather by the Unified Intelligence Division (UID) of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). They knew him because he was into heroin. The UID had a “confidential” 59-page report done on Galante under the signature of a single investigator, Special Agent Michael Cunniff. The report — completed in December of 1976 — was filled with contradictions, hedging qualifications, hearsay, gossip, raw surveillance anecdotes, and “investigative leads.”
The ambiguous nature of the report was captured by one sentence on page six: “Galante is allegedly now the de facto head of the Bonanno La Cosa Nostra family and, according to information from underworld sources, he is a strong candidate for the post of capo di tutti capi.” At another point the UID document observed, “Many Gambino family members believe that Galante is only a tool for Joe Bonnano.”
This classified document was immediately leaked to the press, possibly by the DEA, which was then in a bureaucratic fight to avoid being brought under the jurisdiction of the FBI, because of its own reputation for corruption.
On Sunday, February 20, 1977, The New York Times published a front-page story under the headline: AN OBSCURE GANGSTER IS EMERGING AS THE MAFIA CHIEFTAIN IN NEW YORK. The story launched the Galante-for-Godfather hype, and seemed clearly based on the UID report. The Times’s story, though it lacked the report’s cautious hedgings, was filled with echoes of undigested surveillance trivia: “If you went to Balducci’s in Greenwich Village, you might well see Carmine Galante… pick over artichokes and tomatoes… or near the L&T cleaners at 245 Elizabeth Street, where he reportedly operates.”
The next day, New York hit the newsstands with a cover story called “Meet the New Godfather.” The story began with a detailed narrative description of DEA agents following Galante as he left his apartment on Waverly Place. The article flatly declared that Galante’s “peers of the Commission, a nine-member national panel of family bosses that is the supreme court and board of directors of the American Mafia, will soon name him capo di tutti capi (‘boss of all bosses’)… Galante already runs more rackets here and abroad than Don Carlo did. And at the rate his empire is expanding, it will soon surpass the worldwide holdings of the late Lucky Luciano.”
The DEA had done for Galante what the promotional talent of Jon Landau had done for Bruce Springsteen. And overnight, Carmine Galante joined Elliot Richardson and Bess Myerson as the three most overrated people in America. The fact was that Galante’s gang only had 200 street level members and was the fourth largest in New York City.
Eighteen months later (August 21, 1978), New York published another story, by another crime reporter, announcing that another crime boss, Funzi Tieri, “until now a shadowy figure, little known, has clearly emerged in New York City as its most powerful mobster. For the country too, because that is the way it has always been.”
Funzi probably had a more legitimate claim to the mythical title, but even this article was simplistic, exaggerated, and portrayed the mafia as a coherent, hierarchical corporation.
This week, a wise FBI agent told me: “It’s all bullshit. We don’t really know what’s going on. It’s all tribal warfare with shifting alliances. We are not allowed to put a tail on any of these guys unless we have specific knowledge he has committed a crime.…”
“A few years ago we took movies of Galante at his summer house on Long Island. And we had guys making mafia charts based on these movies. If Galante helped a guy into his house with his suitcase, we decided it was a sign of respect, so the guy must be a big shot, a capo. If Galante didn’t help carry the guy’s bags, we decided he must be a button, or nothing. Maybe Galante just had a bad back one day. Or felt tired. And we were making serious charts based on meaningless gestures which newspapers printed as if it was definite…
“I once had an informant who told me all sorts of stories. Later I found out the guy was simultaneously an informant to the New York City Police Department, only I didn’t know it. What he was telling the police was completely different than what he was telling the bureau. And we were both paying him for his bullshit.”
The truth is that almost nobody has reliable information about the inner workings of the mafia. The mafia is not like a government agency, where a disgruntled bureaucrat will duplicate an embarrassing memo and leak it to a reporter. Serious gangsters don’t talk to anyone, much less journalists, about their last contract killing or kilo shipment of junk.
Most reporters who write about organized crime must rely on law enforcement agencies for their information. (A few journalists have relatives who are connected, but they don’t put their bylines on stories.) Law enforcement agencies — many of whom know next to nothing themselves — have a built-in motive to exaggerate: bigger budgets derived from greater publicity. Since they have a near monopoly on the raw data, it’s impossible to independently verify the truth of what they’re leaking. So, at best, what appears in the papers now is “rank speculation.” At worst, it is imaginative writing based on clippings, puffery from informants, and the memory of movies.
Law enforcement ignorance about the mafia is reflected by the fact that none of the publicized killings of godfathers has led to any trials or convictions for those crimes. No one was ever convicted for killing Albert Anastasia at the Park Sheraton Hotel in 1957, or Joey Gallo, or Tommy Eboli. The contract murder of mob lawyer Gino Gallina on Carmine Street has never been solved. No one has been prosecuted for shooting Sam Giancana.
Moreover, the local media mythology that whoever rules Mulberry Street is the capo di tutti capi is Old World romance. Power in the mafia, like power in the American economy, has shifted to the Sun Belt. Santo Trafficante in Miami and Carlos Marcello in New Orleans represent power much more serious and subtle than Carmine Galante ever dreamed of.
And at a totally different level there is a form of mega-mafia in America that flourishes on the elite margin, where businessmen act like gangsters, and gangsters act like businessmen, and almost every company has access to a slush fund in the Bahamas or a Swiss bank account. These people and their companies don’t have ethnic rituals or “mob wars,” but they have tremendous economic and political power.
As Paul Du Brul and I noted in The Abuse of Power, this is the shadow realm of Sidney Korshak, Meyer Lansky, Richard Kleindienst, Adnan Khashoggi, John Cody, Congressman Dan Flood, Spiro Agnew, Alvin Malnick, Robert Vesco, Frank Fitzsimmons, Bebe Rebozo, Bert Lance, and the Shah of Iran and all his exiled bagmen. This is where crime, labor, and corporate power converge and become almost indistinguishable.
There is no one mafia godfather. There is no capo di tutti capi. There are just law enforcement agencies trying to arrest gangs of career criminals. And newspaper publishers trying to improve circulation.
The rest is hype, the rest is myth.