BROOKE GLADSTONE 2021 broke records for the most journalists jailed in a year. China helped push up the numbers with a law called...
ROBERT MAHONEY 'Picking quarrels and provoking trouble'. Could you imagine how many New Yorkers would be arrested if you could prosecute people for picking quarrels and provoking trouble?
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also, this week, how true crime might not be just the sweet little binge that you think it is.
EMMA BERQUIST A lot of women that I talked to about true crime, tell me that they're watching it for a sense of control, which I don't think that that's a particularly good way to look at it, though, because it's not going to give you tips on how to survive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So true crime won't keep you breathing, but with mobsters in that racket, it might warm a few cold cases...
RACHEL CORBETT He was involved in 19 murders, and now he tells the tales of these crimes and many others from the Phoenix suburbs, where he lives to be near his grandkids.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. How will you remember 2021? It was the year of the vaccine, the year of the insurrection, the year of American troops leaving Afghanistan, a year of workers strikes, deadly storms, televised courtroom verdicts, crypto-mania, supply chain meltdowns, culture war spats, big public funding bills and Omicron. More people died from COVID 19 this year than last. It's been a year of hope and anger and loss. In 2021, we at On the Media focused on the narratives, the ideas and beliefs that shape the news more than the specific characters that deliver it. But as a whole, it's been a hard year for journalists. We asked our reporter, Micah Loewinger, to take stock of who and what the press lost this year. Micah, welcome.
MICAH LOEWINGER Hey, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where should we begin?
MICAH LOEWINGER I wanted to start with the story of a journalist named Danish Siddiqui. He's an Indian photojournalist with Reuters. His photos of violence in Hong Kong, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq are, at this point, iconic. He actually won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 2018 for his coverage of the Rohingya refugee crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, I remember one of those pictures. An exhausted refugee touching the shore after crossing the border by boat. It's indescribably moving and indescribably beautiful,
MICAH LOEWINGER Like so many of his photographs. It captures place, character, politics, pain, hope. You can't see the woman's face, but yet you seem to feel her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Siddiqui was killed in July. He was embedded with Afghan forces when the soldiers were attacked by the Taliban.
MICAH LOEWINGER He was injured by shrapnel brought to a mosque for medical attention. And while he was there, the Taliban learned that there was a foreign journalist in the area. They found him there. They identified him as a Reuters reporter. They kidnapped him, they murdered him. And the Taliban released photos of his mutilated body. Obviously to make a point to other media, to other governments that if you come here, this is what we'll do to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Siddiqui. He was a special journalist, but he was also sort of a special case. He was a reporter for a major international news outlet. He entered the war zone on a dangerous assignment. That's not really the case for the majority of the two dozen journalists who were murdered this year.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, when I was going through the list, I didn't recognize their names and I didn't recognize the outlets that they worked for. When I spoke to Robert Mahoney, who's the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists CPJ, he said that most of these reporters worked for very small outlets doing hyper local coverage, often without the protection that comes with bigger outlets, without the training. He told me the story of a Mexican journalist named Gustavo Sánchez Cabrera...
ROBERT MAHONEY Who was working in a small town in Oaxaca state in the south of Mexico. This man ran a very small news service reporting on corruption, local killings, local protests. He upset some very powerful local people.
MICAH LOEWINGER Last year, during the summer, he had been shot in an attempted assassination.
ROBERT MAHONEY But he continued to report because he believed that what he was doing was serving his local community.
MICAH LOEWINGER The Mexican government actually has a program where they offer protection to people like him. Targets of political violence. That protection never came. And then this summer...
ROBERT MAHONEY Now he's riding on a motorcycle with his 15-year-old son when two men ram into the motorcycle. They then walk up and fire something like 15 bullets into him in front of his son. And his case is typical of so many local journalists around the world who are threatened but continue to do their work and they pay the ultimate price.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me his name again, the name of this local reporter in Oaxaca.
MICAH LOEWINGER Gustavo Sánchez Cabrera.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We also saw a record-breaking number of arrests of journalists. One case that got a lot of press was the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich.
NEWS REPORT There's been a chorus of condemnation across Europe tonight after a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Minsk in Belarus and a dissident Belarussian journalist on board was detained. State media in Belarus said the plane was forced to land because of a bomb scare.
NEWS REPORT A Belarusian war plane armed to the teeth was dispatched to escort the aircraft in, but no bombs were found on board.
NEWS REPORT Dissident Roman Protasevich was paraded on pro-government TV. Confessing to organizing mass riots.
NEWS REPORT The journalist's father said he believes his son has been beaten and his nose broken, disguised by makeup in the video. After that unprecedented hijacking. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 293 journalists behind bars now. So, tell me about a few of the others who were targeted this year.
MICAH LOEWINGER Jimmy Lai.
NEWS REPORT Jimmy Lai, the owner of what used to be Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy newspaper, has been sentenced to another 13 months in jail following his conviction...
NEWS REPORT ...for organizing a 2020 vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre. Critics say the charges are part of a crackdown on dissent. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER For years, Hong Kong has been kind of like an island of media freedom. But last year, Beijing started cracking down on civil society in Hong Kong. China for years has been a prolific jailer of journalists, and this year they earned the top spot as the most aggressive jailer in the world. They also targeted a group of journalists who brought us the earliest coverage of coronavirus at a time way back when there was this mysterious flu or something in Wuhan. It really wasn't clear because there was such a tremendous media blackout and one woman named Zhang Zhan.
ROBERT MAHONEY She managed to get in, and she started reporting on what was going on in the city. Getting it out on social media and other platforms.
MICAH LOEWINGER Robert Mahoney from CPJ
ROBERT MAHONEY In May of last year, she was brutally detained and charged with this really serious charge that the Chinese can bring against journalists called picking quarrels and provoking trouble. Could you imagine how many New Yorkers would be arrested if you could criminally prosecute people for picking quarrels and provoking trouble? She went on hunger strike, and then she was force fed, trying to protest the fact that she was jailed for trying to tell the world what was going on with a global story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This arrest rate, it's it's high, isn't it?
MICAH LOEWINGER In the 40 years that CPJ has been collecting this data, they've never seen a number this high. Almost 300 people. And I asked Robert Mahoney what accounted for this rise, and he said, basically, authoritarianism is coming back.
ROBERT MAHONEY More and more governments want to stifle criticism, they want to shut down investigations into corruption and wrongdoing. Putting journalists in jail sends a message to other journalists at the same fate awaits them. And that brings about the cancer on journalism, which is self-censorship. Journalists don't report on subjects that they believe will get them arrested, jailed, even murdered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how about the American press? What are the trends in loss this year?
MICAH LOEWINGER This year we lost the Trump bump, which is –
BROOKE GLADSTONE a bit of a double-edged sword, aye?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, the truth about the last four years is that Trump's open aggression on the American press was pretty frightening and disturbing. But it was also a really profitable time for basically all-American media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It made supporting the press a political act, an act of engagement.
MICAH LOEWINGER Slate did kind of a round up. They found that the New York Times doubled their subscriptions, The Washington Post tripled their subscriptions. Even our listeners and donations at On the Media ballooned, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE They did.
MICAH LOEWINGER I emailed two media reporters at Axios, Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer trying to quantify what the loss of the Trump bump looks like in the first 6 months of 2021. Mainstream outlets: New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, they lost about 18.3 percent monthly traffic on average. Move to the right leaning, left leaning and then more partisan outlets. You actually see a harder hit. For instance, outlets like Mother Jones lost around 42 percent of its traffic. Far right outlets like Newsmax lost 43.8 percent of their traffic. Fox News viewership seemed to drop by over 20 percent. So, seeing this universal hit to the news media feels like a kind of foreshadowing for the type of coverage we might see again when Trump, I think, inevitably runs for office in 2024.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, we don't know that.
MICAH LOEWINGER I mean, come on–.
[BOTH START CHUCKLING]
MICAH LOEWINGER You know, it's pretty pretty obv–
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't think we know that, Micah.
MICAH LOEWINGER Fair enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We'll see. The Trump years, though, did fill the coffers of the national news outlets. It was a much bleaker picture, though, for local outlets.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is just the latest in a decades long trend, but it's all been exacerbated by COVID. The Poynter Institute, which tracks the media industry, has counted dozens of newspaper closures over the past couple of years and among the ones that have closed this year. There's the McGregor Mirror, a Texas family owned newspaper that's been around for over 100 years – closed two months ago. The Kokomo Perspective, it's an Indiana newspaper that shut down last month and an alt-weekly called Style Weekly in Richmond, Virginia, a 40-year-old newspaper, shut down last month. And this is an interesting one because it was owned by Alden Global Capital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm sorry, but we've followed Alden, it's a scourge. It bought the Tribune publishing company. It's a hedge fund, that's the very definition of vulture capitalism. How many people were cut from Tribune Publishing after Alden bought it for over $600 million?
MICAH LOEWINGER They cut 250 people, so they'll cut the staff, reduce operating costs, sell off the assets like the building the newspaper operates out of. And then they drive up the subscription prices. For a little while. You can basically trick subscribers into paying more for a crappier newspaper until the whole thing collapses. And a once beloved newspaper is destroyed and Alden Global Capital is a little bit richer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in the past 15 years, more than a quarter of American newspapers have gone out of business
MICAH LOEWINGER And the ones that remain, about 50 percent of them, are owned by financial firms like Alden Global Capital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, so now the question that we always have to ask on a show as meta as ours – why should we care?
MICAH LOEWINGER Fewer people run for mayor in counties and in communities where a newspaper has shut down. Fewer people vote. A recent study published this summer from UC San Diego and Harvard found that newspaper closures are linked to higher rates of corporate corruption.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are studies that have shown that political corruption, too, I mean, it seems obvious, goes up. And that frequently this kind of corruption happens in plain sight because people aren't covering the public meetings or the statehouse sessions where it takes place.
MICAH LOEWINGER And even just kind of like squishier social stuff like obituaries, scores from high school sports games, job postings...
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're talking about the social glue,
MICAH LOEWINGER The social glue that newspapers provide. When newspapers leave a community, where do people go to find that information? They either won't find it or I think they seek out NextDoor or local Facebook groups. And even coming from somebody like me who loves internet forums and has a sort of romantic idea of what online communities can achieve, I mean, local Facebook groups are toxic. They're they're filled with misinformation. They are not substitutes for real local reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the press has lost a lot this year. The lives of journalists, a loss of reporting due to self-censorship and imprisonment. The Trump bump and the continued death of local news. So, Micah, as we greet the new year, what have we gained, if anything?
MICAH LOEWINGER One thing we've definitely gained is a sense of solidarity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How so?
MICAH LOEWINGER Some data suggests that 2021 has seen the most new media unions in recent history. The New Yorker, Insider, iHeart Media, The New York Times, public radio stations all across the country, journalists are forming unions to pressure their employers to offer better benefits, higher salaries, to address abusive managers and toxic workplaces. Even as our industry is kind of like falling apart, people are finding agency, and this isn't just some kind of inside baseball thing. I actually spoke to a professor at the University of Toronto, Nicole Cohen, who wrote a book called New Media Unions Organizing Digital Journalists, and she made an important point. Media unions are good for news consumers as well, and it makes sense. If you are working on some investigative project that takes months. If you're worrying the whole time about what your next gig is or you don't have health insurance or underpaid and working a part time job. Your muckraking is going to suffer, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, it's funny. That is maybe something we can take away from the Trump years and the pandemic years. They've increased some of the divisions among us, certainly. And we've talked about those yawning chasms at length, but they've also brought groups of disparate people together. I mean, more people consider themselves workers now in the old union sense of the word, and they realize that things don't have to stay the way they were. It happens across the board.
MICAH LOEWINGER And one other thing we've gained this year as journalists have started to have more open conversations with one another about the forces that threaten our industry but also, the forces that threaten the future of our democracy, is a sense of urgency, and I think we've lost some naivete.
KAREN ATTIAH With civil rights, voting rights, women's health care rights under attack. I think that the media has gained some awareness that democracy and human rights are actively being eroded at home.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Karen Attiah, an editor at the opinion section at The Washington Post. And when I emailed her and asked her what have we gained and lost this year, she sent me this voice memo
KAREN ATTIAH ...and that the voices of black Latino women that have been warning us for years about America's dark domestic forces were right. So, I hope that we lose for next year the pretense that both sides-ism and neutrality will save us in the face of what's happening because our very democracy is at stake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, I don't like to end on tape, Micah, but just this once I think I will.
MICAH LOEWINGER Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Micah Loewinger is On the Media's reporter. Coming up, the myths and misdirection served up by true crime. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. True crime is a blockbuster genre in... well, any medium. Books, movies, TV shows and don't forget podcasts all pull in the masses. Horrifying and delighting us and sometimes shaping our worldview in ways that bear no relation to reality. After all, how true is true crime? Does it really capture the complexity of the criminal mind, much less the criminal justice system? Or convey the contexts of the victim and perpetrator in equal measure? Does it teach us anything at all? Emma Berquist is a young adult fiction writer and author of the recent Gawker article True Crime Is Rotting Our Brains. Last year, she was living in New Zealand, and one afternoon while walking her dog, a stranger lunged at her back and stabbed her multiple times. She survived the assault, but it fundamentally changed how she saw the genre she also avidly enjoyed, and in the Gawker piece, she pondered why it was so delicious and also the hazards that come with the pleasure of consumption.
EMMA BERQUIST A lot of women that I talked to about true crime tell me that they're watching it for a sense of control. That it's a way of managing their fears, a way to think about what they would do in those situations, which I don't think that that's a particularly good way to look at it, though, because it's not –.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Terribly instructive?
EMMA BERQUIST Yeah! It's not going to give you tips on how to survive. But I do think that there is a sense of control in seeing these stories and how there's usually a narrative there or a beginning, a middle and end. I think the problem becomes trying to maintain control can be ultimately very unhealthy. I was seeing this, you know, when I was dealing with my own PTSD, trying to impose control on something that can't really be controlled. And what happens is you get so caught up in making sure that you're in control that when something in your life inevitably does go sideways, it can really send you into a spiral.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your case, it was a random event, but the assumption that hyper vigilance can really deter these attacks is a kind of victim blaming.
EMMA BERQUIST First of all, it's a false assumption. There's no amount of hypervigilance that can save you from some sort of surprise attack. And second of all, yeah, what I would call it is the victim blaming dress up and empowerment, which is if I'm just smart enough or aware enough, I can escape these situations, unlike these other women who didn't. And you know what you're saying is that, you know, women who were murdered or women who had these horrible things happen to them should have known better or should have been more aware or should have been hyper vigilant, and that would have protected them. You know, again, that's just blaming them for something that's completely outside their control.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you familiar with the study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania that found that the fear of crime and violence on TV have both increased over time despite the crime rates declining and that women reported more fear of crime on surveys than men?
EMMA BERQUIST Yeah, again, I don't know that there's a direct correlation. I don't think it's quite that simple, but I do think that we are often unaware of the effect that the media that we consume on ourselves, we can see it in other people. We talk about our grandparents watching Fox News and things like that and how it can have an effect on them. But we don't always consider what we're watching and how it can have an effect on us or what we're listening to and how it can kind of sneak itself into your brain and set up camp there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you ever see that SNL song The Husband Is Going Out and four women and the Saturday Night Live cast, their spouses are going out and they're relieved because they get to...
CHORUS I'mma watch a murder show. YouTube, Hulu. That's my favorite thing to do.
FINEMAN Two sisters got killed on a cruise in the Bahamas. I'm gonna half-watch it while I fold my pajamas.
VILLASEÑOR Severed limbs found on a beach in Chula Vista, but I just kind of stare while I eat a piece of pizza.
NWODIM They dig up some bodies and doing autopsy. Boring, wake me up when... [END CLIP]
Women are, you know, the main consumers of it. And I don't know if women like watching true crime because true crime focuses on women or if true crime focuses on women, because women watch it and listen to it. And it's interesting because, you know, most murder victims are male, but most of the stories that we associate with true crime have female victims. I think that there's a kind of comfort in seeing your worst fears realized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You had this horrible experience of random violence and you are a true crime fan and you decided to write a piece about the problem. So what did you want to impart fundamentally?
EMMA BERQUIST Really, what I wanted was for people to just sort of interrogate their relationship with true crime. I don't want anyone to feel guilty about watching it or consuming it because I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I don't want people to let it give them sort of the PTSD symptoms that I was struggling with, and I was seeing that happen and talking to my friends, I was seeing them have this fear that something bad was going to happen to them, just sort of like a low level anxiety that they were just constantly living with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How did that manifest?
EMMA BERQUIST Checking crime stats, having you know, lots of security at their houses, thinking that they needed to have like weapons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE True crime is anecdotal. It's it's often overblown. It's like a newspaper that's all police blotter. But part of being a news consumer is looking for lessons, information meaning from that stuff. Does true crime teach us anything useful?
EMMA BERQUIST I think if you're looking to true crime for survival tips, it's not going to be helpful. I think if you're looking at it for just information on, you know, maybe the justice system, that that could be a little bit more helpful. There's a great article by Elon Green called The Enduring Pernicious Whiteness of True Crime, and he talks about how we should think more about what true crime can be and what we think about as crime, because there are lots of ongoing crimes that we don't really think about as criminal and aren't focused on as true crimes. Like when we think of theft, we think of people robbing a store, but we don't think about, you know, wage theft, which is a much larger scale crime. But we don't think of that
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wage theft as when the employers don't pay you what you're owed.
EMMA BERQUIST Right. Why do we focus on, you know, this small sort of shoplifting crimes? And why don't we consider that crime? But we don't think about these huge corporations paying their workers, and they usually end up getting slapped with a lawsuit and then pay a fine. And we keep going. If we were to sort of reevaluate what we think of as crime. We could learn a lot more from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we don't fear those crimes. Those crimes aren't sexy. I'm talking about true crime podcasts and TV shows as they currently exist. What we can learn from those, and then a follow up, how could we make those better without destroying their appeal?
EMMA BERQUIST I don't know if there's anything to learn from them other than maybe getting information on how to prevent crime from beginning in the first place. You know, look at what caused people to act the way they act. Was it domestic violence? Was it poverty? Can we find solutions that don't involve just putting someone in prison after the fact?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
EMMA BERQUIST I think that probably is the way true crime could be helpful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So in these true crime podcasts, maybe the real information comes from focusing on the perpetrator and what impelled them to do what they did.
EMMA BERQUIST When we focus on the victim, you're getting to tell someone's story and, you know, giving them a legacy. But what is the point of true crime? Right now, it's just entertainment. And I think if it wanted to be something more profound than it would need to focus on how to prevent these crimes from happening, and to do that, you probably need to focus on the criminal side of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let me read you about a book that I recently came upon that I can't wait to order. Here's a little summary: When 18-year-old Lexi foresees the brutal murder of a young woman outside of a club in downtown L.A., she's powerless to stop it. But then the girl's ghost appears seeking vengeance, and Lexi swept into a dangerous search that could put her directly into the path of a serial killer with a touch. Lexi can sense how and when someone will die. Some say it's a gift, but to Lexi, it's a curse, one that keeps her friendless and alone. And all that changes when Lexi foresees the violent death of a young woman, Jane, outside of a club.
EMMA BERQUIST [LAUGHS] Yeah, I did write that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is your book Missing, Presumed Dead from HarperCollins. It's steeped in violence, but it's a violence that teaches Lexi about herself.
EMMA BERQUIST I've always been interested in darker things. Like I've always been a huge horror fan, and I wrote both of my books years before my attack and I did end up killing someone with a knife in that book. And it's, yeah, it's just kind of strange how life works out. But yeah, I try not to include violence just for the sake of violence. I feel like you have to earn the gore in the violence that you're using. It either has to be part of the world that you're building, or it has to be something that's going to fundamentally change your character.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When did you know you weren't going to die?
EMMA BERQUIST I think it was when the woman found me on the path, and her name was Roopali, and we were able to talk months after my attack and reconnect, I had collapsed on the path. And I was bleeding a lot and I couldn't get up. I had managed to call 111, which is the New Zealand number for the paramedics, and they were on the phone with me, and I was kind of having trouble focusing and talking, and Roopali walked by me, you know, and I just said, please help me. And she took my phone and she was able to talk to the paramedics and sort of direct them to where we were. And I think just having someone else there, having just another human being next to me, I think that's when I knew it was like, I, I'm going to get through this, I'm going to be OK. There's help coming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you still consume true crime, a little bit.
EMMA BERQUIST Yeah. Not quite at the extent that I did before. What I'm more interested now is in survival stories, stories of people overcoming very extreme situations. I went through a period where I read a lot of mountaineering books and I read a lot about Chernobyl. I read about radiation poisoning, which I think could be considered. I guess I wouldn't say true crime, but it's often a crime when something goes wrong, that could be prevented. I became very interested in stories of human beings overcoming very long odds because my attack really did feel sort of like a natural disaster, like a strange thing that just tore into my life the way that like a tornado or a plane crash would.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Has it changed the way you write?
EMMA BERQUIST You know, fiction is such a different thing and what happened to me? I don't think would make a great story because there's not really a satisfactory ending. The one thing that I really wanted to get out of my attack was a reason, was an answer – sort of why. Like, why me? Why then? And I never got that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They caught him right?
EMMA BERQUIST Yeah, they did. But he was even in court, he said, You know, I can't give you an answer about why. He didn't even know why. So, I never really got that kind of closure or that kind of narrative conclusion. And I don't think I could write something that was so open ended. I like to tie things up a little neater than that. And that's really the main difference between fiction and life is that we don't get those tidy endings in life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you wouldn't write about yours. But do you think that the experience changed the subjects you'd want to write about? I mean, would you write a survival story?
EMMA BERQUIST Well, absolutely. And I did start one, and I also, you know, just finished a draft of a sort of killer in the woods kind of story. And that was really something that I started as a way to have a sort of cathartic outlet for the healing process. And I think I think I'll take what happened to me and use it to, you know, maybe put some more visceral scenes into my work because I know what this feels like now. I know what the fear is like. I know what it's like to think that you're going to die and I can, maybe putting that into a character's mind can help me sort of explore it more fully.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
EMMA BERQUIST And look, thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Emma Berquist is the author of the books Devils Unto Dust and Missing, Presumed Dead. You can find her recent article, True Crime Is Rotting Our Brains on Gawker.
How about when tales of True Crime are told by actual criminals? Coming up mobster podcasts now with real mobsters, this is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So true crime stories cut corners misdirect. They squeeze complicated narratives into the shape of simple tales, but sometimes they can actually tie up some knotty and vexing loose ends. In fact, one kind of true crime shows seems to offer the authorities, rather than us laypeople, an offer they can't refuse. Rachel Corbett stumbled upon the phenomenon while working on an upcoming book about criminal profiling. The former FBI agents she called up kept talking about a new kind of podcast they were listening to where the mobsters of a bygone era speak for themselves. Corbett's, the author of an article in The New Yorker called Why the FBI Loves Mob Podcasts. And as it turns out, they are having quite a moment...
RACHEL CORBETT So they've all started in the last few years. Sammy the Bull is one of the fan favorites
BROOKE GLADSTONE that Salvatore Gravano, the Gambino family underboss in the late 80s who you wrote was involved in at least 19 murders during his tenure as John Gotti's enforcer.
RACHEL CORBETT Exactly. He was the underboss, which means he was second in line. If anything should have happened to Gotti, and he was a hitman. Rose his way through the ranks, and he was involved in 19 murders, meaning he either executed them personally or he directed them. And now he tells the tales of these crimes and many others from the Phoenix suburbs, where he lives to be near his grandkids.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote he spent 17 and a half years at a supermax prison, but he's not still there. So he turned on Gotti. Right?
RACHEL CORBETT Exactly. He flipped on Gotti. Gotti got caught implicating Gravano in a series of murders. And Sammy was angry that he wasn't the one who got pinched. Gotti did, but Gotti wanted him to do the time. So he flipped and went to the FBI and got Gotti put in prison for the rest of his life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I wonder why he wasn't afraid to be murdered. Is it because he was with Gotti so long? He knew exactly how and when it could come?
RACHEL CORBETT There was a hit out for him. I mean, there have been several hits out for him, I believe, since he ratted on Gotti. So, it's not like he went scot free, but he was in witness protection for a while, so he was safe then and now. I think he feels relatively safe because the guys he was running with at the time are now in their 70s and they're retired. It's really the Russian mob now apparently that's taking over. So, I think they're all grandfathers or they're they're gone themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so what's his show like?
RACHEL CORBETT He tells war stories. Basically, he he's got this very slow voice and he's like I said in the 70s.
SAMMY THE BULL When I think back about my past, I feel like I have lived three lifetimes. I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I had loving parents, a great family. I was a happy kid. [END CLIP]
RACHEL CORBETT He just he recounts his greatest hits, basically when he ordered the execution of mob boss Paul Castellano, which was at the time, you know, a huge, colossal undertaking. No one killed one of their own bosses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right? He's he was Gotti's predecessor.
RACHEL CORBETT Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
RACHEL CORBETT And then he tells this case of the DEA agent that was killed by a mafia associate, which is one of the biggest cases in FBI history, one of the biggest manhunts in FBI history. He just goes through basically all the crimes he's involved with and is very happy to lay them out. Play-By-Play. Sometimes cases that he wasn't involved with, but his associates were. And he just tells it in this very slow, very cinematic way. And it's kind of like watching a gangster movie. He's the real deal. He's sounds like a gangster. He talks like gangster, he still is one, of course.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But different, stylistically, is Jimmy Calandra, who was an enforcer for the Bonanno family, which you say is reportedly the most brutal of the five families who controlled organized crime in New York. His style in his YouTube series is very different.
RACHEL CORBETT Yeah, his a lot of airing of old grievances and score settling and gripes about people. There's a lot of technical difficulties he's having with using YouTube, which is pretty funny, and he's always asking his subscribers to help him out with technical difficulties. But usually it's, you know, a lot of scumbags and losers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's his language, is what you're saying. Or are those his guests?
RACHEL CORBETT Well, that's his language. That's who is talking about.
JIMMY CALANDRA You ain't no gentleman. I could tell you that, you know, gentlemen, nobody likes you. You got these kids. You got Hootie and the other drug addict attacking me. And if they did it to my face, they'd get drop-kicked in the jaw. I tell you straight out. [END CLIP]
RACHEL CORBETT He does a YouTube show so you can see him, and he's often in a basement somewhere. He still wears the Adidas tracksuit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sounds more like Wayne's World than, you know, Goodfellas.
RACHEL CORBETT Yeah, it's not very high tech.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet another style is one you mentioned an interview show called The Sit Down with Michael Franzese.
RACHEL CORBETT It's an interview show. He usually talks to actors who've been in various mobster movies.
MICHAEL FRANZESE And this is the second edition of Mob Movie Monday. As you know, we're alternating Mondays between Mob Movie Monday and Mob Story Monday. Today it's mob movie Monday, and today we're going to review Donnie Brasco. [END CLIP]
RACHEL CORBETT I think he had the real Donnie Brasco on the show actually once, and he gives tips. You know, mafia lifestyle tips. How to, you know how to live your best life if you want to join the mob and business tips, he gives investment tips sometimes. He's a motivational speaker, so he gives kind of general, you know how to be a better leader kind of tips [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What qualifies him to do this? Does he live in a van down by the river?
RACHEL CORBETT I think he's made a lot of money, and he's living in Orange County having a pretty good life, actually. He's the son of Sonny Franzese, who is a very famous mobster, and he was a former capo for the Colombo family. So, he was pretty high ranking. He was more of a racketeer, Sammy would say he was a gangster. Michael Franese was a racketeer, so he was a big earner for the family.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does every one of the five families have a representative in the podcast or media world?
RACHEL CORBETT Well, the ones I talked to were two guys from the Gambino. There's a Colombo. I didn't speak to anyone in the O'Casey of the Genovese families, but you know, I would bet you there are. I spoke to maybe four of these guys, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned a famous case of the murder of a Drug Enforcement Agency undercover agent that Sammy the Bull discussed, which was of tremendous interest to an FBI agent that you spent some time with for this story. His name is Fitzgerald.
RACHEL CORBETT Yeah, so he worked this case. This case was a huge deal because there was a sort of unspoken rule that the Mafia didn't kill members of the FBI and the FBI didn't kill members of mafia. Well they didn't kill any federal agent. And so, when this happened, it unleashed the biggest Manhunt New York history, at the time. The Feds just cracked down on every aspect of the mafia. Their gambling rings, their clubs, and they just really put on all the pressure to try to find this guy who killed one of their own. This just wasn't supposed to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mean they went into places and said, Nice club, you got here. It'd be a shame if something happened to it.
RACHEL CORBETT I think more or less. Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Sammy the Bull said, you know, it made sense because this number one rule was broken, but then the mobsters and the FBI found themselves in a weird position over the death of this guy. Competing to figure out who'd get him first.
RACHEL CORBETT Yeah, the mafia was really angry that this guy, who he wasn't a made guy, he was a low-level drug dealer. He was the one who killed the agent, and they were angry because now suddenly all their clubs were raided. The Feds were breathing down their back, and so they wanted to catch this guy, too and just get rid of him. That way, the FBI would leave him alone, they hoped. So, they were both hunting the guy. The FBI wanted to catch him in order to flip him, put him in jail, maybe get some more information out of him. The Mafia didn't want that either, so they just wanted to kill him. And in the end, they're the ones who found him first.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Fitzgerald was very interested in this story, as Gravano told it, because there were so many unanswered questions.
RACHEL CORBETT Yeah, he personally worked this case, and of course, it was solved. They knew who killed the undercover agent, but they didn't know anything about him. They didn't know the circumstances. And so it kind of fizzled. They didn't really get all of the details they were seeking. There were other murders associated with this case as well. You know, associates that died along the way that the murder of Gus Farace was his name was staying with the mafia killed that guy. So all these questions about the circumstances were unanswered, and Gravano really goes through those in his podcast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So did that give Fitzgerald closure?
RACHEL CORBETT Well, he certainly found it interesting. He was able to find out how they think when this is going on. He was surprised to hear, for example, that Sammy the Bull thought the FBI wanted them to murder him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, it had a certain Beckett quality. Will no one rid us sub this meddlesome murderer?
RACHEL CORBETT Exactly, exactly. Of course, they didn't want him to die. They wanted information. But you know, the mob operates how the mob operates. And so it's not that he really found out material details, something new they can prosecute, but it was a lot of color and context and understanding that they gathered from just hearing it from the other side of the issue.
SAMMY THE BULL My wife answered the door and she said, 'Sammy, the FBI's by the door.' I went to the door and I says, ‘what can I do for you?’ he said, Sammy, we want you to tell John Gotti that we want this guy found and we don't care how. The way they said it. I've just had to ask the question, are you asking me to kill him? Oh no, no, Sammy, no, you know, we're not, we're not going there. We don't give a fuck how he's found.
RACHEL CORBETT The closed cases, but they live on in their minds. And I think that the curiosities go on even if it's in the past and the books are closed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does Fitzgerald have a podcast?
RACHEL CORBETT He does,
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah? What do you think of it?
RACHEL CORBETT It's great. I mean, it's a different tone, for sure. But he also goes through the biggest cases of his career. He's one of the agents who was on the Unabomber task force. He did the linguistic analysis, so he talks about, you know, huge cases that he's worked and you get a lot of insight into those as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So he's a profiler.
RACHEL CORBETT Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned that these mafia guys have different styles, but is there more of an emphasis on graphic storytelling or of romanticizing the days of the wise guys and the mafia code?
RACHEL CORBETT I think it's very much both. They would tell you they're not romanticizing the wise guy spirit, but it's hard for me to see how they're not in a way. It's telling stories about all the money they had and the women they had and all the the lifestyle and of course, the gruesome violence too. One of the guys I talked to, John Alite says specifically to me that he does not want to glamorize the lifestyle. In fact, his whole purpose is to teach kids not to join gangs and to stay away from a life of crime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Alite was also a hitman for Gotti.
RACHEL CORBETT Exactly. Yeah, kind of the next generation after Sammy the Bull. But at the same time, you know, he sells signed baseball bats on his website because he was very notorious for using the baseball bat in his jobs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Of all of the performers you've encountered, who's your favorite?
RACHEL CORBETT I have to say Sammy the Bull, just because there's something very charming about his style. He's got this just slow voice. It's kind of soothing in a way, and he's, you know, he sounds like he could be in a movie. He's really transports you. You know, if you like mobster movies, which I happen to, it feels like you're watching one. Of course, it's the real thing, you know? And I guess that's maybe why these guys have been so successful because they are often charming. You know, one of the agents told me he had to always remind himself when he's hanging out with them in the club that they would not hesitate to kill him in another situation. They're smiling and laughing, and they actually like each other. But there's another side, of course,
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's just business.
RACHEL CORBETT Exactly. That's what the podcasts are, too. I think they found another way to earn on the other side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does the FBI segment of the Mafia podcast demographic listen differently from just a regular person? Are they trying to decode these things?
RACHEL CORBETT I think so. They're not just listening for a wild ride of a story. They already know the story. I think they're listening for details that they didn't know. One agent told me that he was really interested in the psychology of the mafia. These guys are known for not speaking, of course. They take a code of silence, so it was always very hard to get them to talk. And now suddenly they're opening up about everything in some cases about how they feel and what they were thinking at the time and what motivated them. And then the other agent told me he was really kind of listening for clues about old cases just to shade in what actually happened, put pieces together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is he the guy who also listens for what's being left out?
RACHEL CORBETT Yeah. Fitzgerald said that. Because in that Sammy the Bull episode about the DEA agent, he doesn't mention a murder that happened. One of the men who was housing Gus Farace, who killed the agent, was also killed. And Fitzgerald thinks that Sammy very likely knew who did it. If not was, you know, if wasn't involved in it himself. Because they can talk about anything that they confessed to. They have legal immunity to any crimes that they confess to. But if they didn't confess to a crime, then of course they really shouldn't be talking about it. So, if they're not talking about something on their show, you know, one might infer that maybe that's something they were involved in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, part of the beauty of podcasting is it's an open medium. Anyone can give their side of the story. How much trust you think one should put into the words of even retired mafia bosses?
RACHEL CORBETT You should probably be skeptical. I think that's safe to say. I think there's a lot of aggrandizing that goes on of oneself and one's legacy as they look back and, you know, they watch mobster movies too. And I think that, you know, everyone wants to live up to a certain image and, you know, retell the story the way they want to. And who's got another? Truth, you know?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you a true crime fan yourself?
RACHEL CORBETT I am. I'm writing a book about criminal profiling right now, so I confess I consume a lot of this media myself. It's probably rot for your brain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE All right. So we'll call you when we do our full hour on true crime podcasts. But thank you very much for this.
RACHEL CORBETT Oh, please do. Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's our show! On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Eli Cohen with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our magnificent newsletter, and our show is edited by me and Kat. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Adriene Lily, Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year…..