Covering The Mob

America's fascination with mobsters — both real and fictional — has been insatiable since the days of Al Capone.

The endearing yet reprehensible characters on The Sopranos have recently captured the nation's imagination. But the true stories of guys like "Lucky" Luciano, John Gotti and Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano were told first in the country's newspapers by crime reporters.

"They saw me as a vehicle to telling their story," said George Anastasia, who has covered organized crime for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years. "They want to get the last word in, and by talking to me they can do that — or at least get equal time with the cops."

These reporters have incredibly close contact with the alleged mobsters they report on, but that access can put them in dangerous situations.

"Thankfully, nothing's ever happened to me, but there was the case of '50s labor columnist Victor Reisel," said Fox News Channel's Eric Shawn, who has reported on the mob as a local New York City reporter and for FNC.

Shawn said Reisel was blinded with acid. "He was attacked by the mob for his coverage of the waterfront, but it didn't stop him."

Anastasia had a close call of his own, discovering his life was in danger while reporting on the mob in Philadelphia.

"I'm writing about the [family] and they were like the gang that couldn't shoot straight," recalled Anastasia. "So [alleged mob boss] John Stanfa gets upset by the way I'm covering them, and he tells a couple of guys to find out where I live and toss a couple of hand grenades through my window."

Anastasia learned about the order from convicted murderer Sergio Battaglia, who called from prison to let him know he was, at one time, in danger. Battaglia told him at the end of the conversation that "it was nothing personal."

"I got a wife and two kids — a grenade comes through my window, it's very personal," said Anastasia.

Luckily, a rift between two Philadelphia mob families broke out and the order was called off.

But Anastasia believes the incident was unusual.

"In Sicily, they kill judges," he said. "Here in America, they don't do that. It's not good for business."

So what is it about these dangerous men that appeals to the public?

"America has always been fascinated with the outlaw, whether it's Billy the Kid or Don Corleone," said Anastasia. "The Godfather became a training film for a lot of these guys, but I think Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco are the two films that demonstrate what it's really like — and what it's really like is treachery and betrayal and your best friend stabbing you in the back trying to get your money."

Critics have said that the romanticization of the mob that became widespread after Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 film The Godfather is misplaced. Many reporters agree that the horror of mob life is sometimes glossed over.

"You have to remember their lives are based on criminality," cautioned Shawn. "But sometimes they're glamorized and it's easy to forget."

While relying on criminals for information may not always be reliable, that's how most crime reporters get their biggest scoops.

"I get a call from a guy I haven't heard from in five, six years," recalled former New York Daily News reporter Mike Santangelo. "He says, 'they took a shot at him.' I say, 'What do you mean?' 'They took a shot at him ... Gotti.'  So I say, 'Did they hit him?' 'No, they missed.' And that's how I got the scoop that somebody tried to kill John Gotti."

The shooter, a mentally disturbed man named William Ciccone, was later found dead.

Gotti, who died in prison last year, was perhaps the most famous mobster in recent American memory. Nicknamed the "Dapper Don," he always appeared in court impeccably groomed and dressed in designer suits.

"Gotti was made for the media and the media was made for him," said Shawn. "He was movie-star handsome. He was flashy. But what many people don't realize is he never gave an interview. He only gave quips."

Ironically, it was Gotti's obsession with his own celebrity that many say led to his downfall as boss of the Gambino crime family.

Due to a confluence of events, including Gotti's flamboyant antics, the FBI's concerted effort to break up organized crime and Hollywood's mainstreaming of the mob, the insular world began to crumble.

"It used to be a secret society, but not anymore," said Shawn.

"The secret code of omertà ? Forget about it. It's as cracked as the Liberty Bell," Anastasia concurred. "These younger guys got caught up in the celebrity life instead of the business life."

With television shows like The Sopranos providing regular doses of mobster life, gangsters are bound to live on in fiction, but the reporters say the concept of the Italian-American "Mafia" is becoming a thing of the past.

"Organized crime will always be with us, but not as much as it is in Hollywood," said Shawn.

As for the argument that Hollywood encourages the stereotype that Italian-Americans are gangsters, Anastasia said that's naive.

"I think people are intelligent enough to realize that's not the case," he said. "Any ethnic group that can give (Supreme Court Justice) Antonin Scalia and (author) Camille Paglia in the same generation doesn't have to worry about Tony Soprano being its poster boy."