"Narcotic": Constructing the Mafia —The Nationally Televised New York Hearings of the Kefauver Committee, March 1951

Michael R. Frontani
2016 Italian American Review  
Reflecting upon the nationally televised New York City hearings of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (hereafter "the Kefauver Committee" or "the Committee"), in March 1951, Jack Gould, the influential New York Times TV critic, astutely recognized their "narcotic fascination on the viewer at home" (Gould 1951b, X13). The broadcasts seemingly had a narcotic effect on the Committee as well, which, though initially apprehensive about the impact of
more » ... new medium of television on its process, could not seem to break away from it and, in the end, could not get its fill. Narcotics, in fact, were being promoted to the Committee by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger as the life's blood of the Mafia, which, he maintained, was the mysterious entity behind organized crime in the United States-an international ethnic crime conspiracy headquartered in Sicily with interests pursued in this country by syndicates of Italian and Italian American racketeers. The nationally televised New York City hearings proved an unequaled vehicle for transmission of a concept of the Mafia that was in no small part motivated by the political interests of Committee members, the funding concerns of government agencies, and the commercial interests of the profit-driven media. This analysis of the televised March 1951 Kefauver Committee hearings in New York City presents a textual and rhetorical analysis of media constructs of Italian American organized crime-and specifically the Mafia-across a spectrum of contemporaneous mass media. The focus of this essay is upon the Committee's and media's construction of Italian Americans and organized crime at the intersection of media and history. The hearings captured the attention of the American people as never before. But this was no mere entertainment. The Kefauver hearings presented a new way of conceiving of organized crime in the United States, one that was readily assimilated into other media products and TV programming. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam (1994) propose, analysis of stereotypes and related constructs should be carried out with an eye on the ideologies and discourses underpinning them (180). What emerges is a construction of criminality inextricably bound to historical precedents and presentations, ambition, and commerce.
doi:10.5406/italamerrevi.6.2.0173 fatcat:6o5npmcjsfho5l6rno6akttpee