The media has long maintained a fascination with organized crime, and the Italian-based Lo Cosa Nostra, or Mafia, in particular. The fascination extends beyond organized crime to include criminal figures of Depression-era America, including Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, The Ma Barker Gang, and others. Newspapers and magazines routinely print articles describing the exploits of such figures as Al Capone, Sam Giancana, Joseph Bonano, and John Gotti. Such stories sell newspapers. It is logical to suggest that the media’ fascination, which certainly stokes public interest, is also a reflection of that public interest. Absent substantial public interest in the activities of organized crime groups, it is unlikely media coverage of those activities, including the criminal trials that usually ensue, would be as extensive as it is.
Whether the media deliberately glamorizes organized crime is debatable with regard to news coverage of the real-life Mafia. At its height, the Mafia exercised considerable control over the American economy through its influence in the trucking and loading dock industries, through which billions of dollars of goods passed on their way to market. The “Five Families” of New York extorted shares of the revenue, thereby increasing prices for consumers. In addition, organized crime’s role in the importation and distribution of illegal drugs has contributed to both costly public health problems and to deterioration of American cities. To that extent, media coverage of organized crime has helped to illuminate its role in adversely affecting the quality of life in this and other countries.
Where glamorization could certainly be said to occur, however, is in the entertainment industry’s interest in organized crime – an interest that has actually crossed the rubicon into active participation at times in the past. Film, television and radio have long exploited organized criminal activity for entertainment purposes. The 1930s saw the release of popular films about criminals, including the first in what would be a long series of movies about the late Al Capone. The 1931 release of “Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson as a mobster, followed in 1932 with the release of “Scarface,” loosely based upon Capone’s life, presaged many such films to come over the ensuing decades. Radio profited from broadcasts of popular series such as “The Scarface Mob,” later known as “The Untouchables,” about the efforts of government agents to capture and convict Capone.
The real glamorization of the Mafia, however, began with the 1969 publication of Mario Puzo’s novel of a Sicilian organized crime family called “The Godfather.” The 1972 film adaptation of Puzo’s novel launched the genre of Mafia movies to heights it hadn’t seen since the Depression. The “Godfather” movies – two sequels were made – were widely seen as glamorizing the Mafia at the same time Italian-Americans complained of the alleged association of their community with crime. The decades following “The Godfather’s” release have seen a continued public fascination with organized crime, both real and imagined. The trials of prominent organized crime figures combined with the continued production of fictional works has helped to maintain that high level of interest. Whether the glamorization increases public interest or simply reflects it, though, is the subject of discussions to this day.