In the American television film The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck, Mario Thomas plays a Midwestern single woman whose life turns into a living hell after a chance affair with a fugitive terrorist. The police, embarrassed at their failure to prevent the fugitive from escaping, turn their investigative machinery onto his one-night paramour, leaking the information they glean to an eager press. Battered by the scrutiny and the screaming headlines, the heroine goes over the edge; in the course of a particularly obnoxious session of questioning, she shoots a local editor to death.
Whether or not Mario Thomas has ever thought of her friend Geraldine Ferraro in connection with this project, the movie came to my mind when I read Ferraro: My Story, the campaign memoirs of the first woman on a major-party national ticket.1 For the most interesting question raised by Mrs. Ferraro has to do with the press treatment of her vice-presidential candidacy.
The book begins with the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco. On short notice, and with scant expectations that such a thing could ever happen, Geraldine Ferraro, an obscure Congresswoman from Queens, a woman devoted to her husband, John Zaccaro, an even more obscure real-estate broker in lower Manhattan, received the call to make history. “It started on such a high,” she writes, with the crowds, the chants of “Gerr-eee, Gerr-eee,” the thrill of breaking barriers for women everywhere. But in the haste and excitement, the Zaccaros failed to reckon on press reaction to the details of their own past. As those details became public, Mrs. Ferraro and her family underwent a torture that culminated in a heartrending attack on her own father, dead since she was eight.
Since this is America, and not ancient Athens, the drama unfolded on the Phil Donahue show, and the Zaccaro family emerged intact. Although her story has the potential for political tragedy, Mrs. Ferraro stays on the plane of the commercial she has since made for Diet Pepsi. Throughout, her diction is colloquial and her tone is gossipy, if not downright crabby. Her story emerges in patches from a welter of transcribed anecdote. Yet the book does not merit the savaging it has been given in some quarters. It should be measured not against the literature of 19th-century statesmen but against the tape-recorder work of her political contemporaries. While not as genial or rich in anecdote as Ronald Reagan's Where's the Rest of Me?, it tries primarily to tell a story that has poignancy and a certain dignity.
Yet Mrs. Ferraro does not do justice to that story. Especially when it comes to dealing with the intense press inquiry into her family “legacy,” she raises more questions than she settles. (Some of the unanswered questions, primarily having to do with an unresolved Justice Department inquiry into whether she committed a felony in not disclosing her husband's affairs in her financial reporting while in Congress, have by her own account caused her to decide against running for the Senate this year.) She also completely fails to recognize that, given the nature of her political ambitions, the press inquiry was a necessary exercise.
In Ferraro: My Story, Mrs. Ferraro portrays herself, with some accuracy, as a harassed and haggard protagonist, pursued from coast to coast by a relentless and relentlessly biased press. Her first set of troubles came over financial disclosure. She blames herself for some of the furor, since she announced that her husband would release his income-tax forms when he was determined not to. His refusal whipped the press into a frenzy, compounded by a flap over irregularities in the financing of her first campaign for Congress in 1978.
Mrs. Ferraro answered the mob on what she calls her Disclosure Weekend. By her own account, her position on the ticket rode on the outcome of a “no-holds-barred” press conference. In the event, she performed extremely well, providing an almost ritualized political drama on the pattern of Richard Nixon's “Checkers” speech. And the day was finally hers altogether when a young editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal yelled “Answer it,” after she had successfully dodged his question.2 This outburst provoked a chorus of boos, one of the few times in memory in which reporters at a press conference chided the boorish behavior of one of their number.
With the disclosure drama resolved so tidily, one can understand the resentment of Mrs. Ferraro and those on her campaign beat when other reporters refused to close the books. But in fact she had not answered the final question, which concerned her husband's continued refusal to release supplemental income-tax forms describing his partnerships. Mr. Zaccaro maintained that he did not want to break promises of confidentiality—certainly a legitimate position. But some were now noticing that properties he owned or managed in New York's “Little Italy” showed up in court records of figures who according to the police were leaders of organized crime. Although some editors felt that these hints of a Mafia connection were tenuous and far-fetched, others believed they deserved serious investigation. The urgency for these others came not only from the substance of the case, but from the suspicion that the “establishment press” was ignoring a substantial story.
The two sides could be divided into “outsiders” like the New York Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, all of which went after the story aggressively, and “insiders” like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which downplayed it—to the extent, in the case of the Times, of burying the work of its own reporter, Ralph Blumenthal, who was the first to discover important material, only some of which got into print. There were also divisions within divisions: the Journal's coverage pitted its New York staff against its Washington bureau. To complicate matters still further, the first hint of a Mafia connection came from total outcasts, the Reverend Moon's now-defunct New York Tribune, the small conservative weekly Human Events, and the Accuracy in Media newsletter.
The experience that followed should have been enough to shatter any lingering myth of investigative reporting à la Woodward-Bernstein. Investigative reporting as it is practiced in the real world depends on leaks from people who have the power of subpoena; on lucky breaks; and on the most tedious sort of work with public records. Official sources concerning Mrs. Ferraro and Mr. Zaccaro were very, very sparse. Her claims to the contrary notwithstanding, federal officials (as far as I can tell) kept total silence. Her Republican opponent in 1978, Al DelliBovi, who now held a senior job in the U.S. Department of Transportation, gave no interviews. The lucky breaks—disgruntled Zaccaro associates, anonymous envelopes stuffed with documents—came late in the game and had to be treated cautiously. Even clippings files did not help, since the 1978 campaign Mrs. Ferraro remembers as being so nasty actually ran through the middle of a New York newspaper strike.
This left the document rooms. To slog after the Zaccaros took the disposition of a graduate student immersed in the glamor of grimy binders, dog-eared files, and glaring microfiche readers. New York municipal clerks watched in amusement as packs of reporters descended on their dreary precincts. At closing time in the Surrogate Court, where real-estate records are kept, reporter after reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer would emerge from behind the microfilm machines, forming a small crowd in the marbled hallway. Indeed, it may have been the necessity for such formidable drudge work that discouraged the likes of the Washington Post, so used to drawing on high-level leaks, from pursuing the story.
The sheer mechanics of this effort expose a crucial, if not the crucial, fact about the much-vexed issue of press bias. Of course reporters have prejudices that unconsciously or not can shape their stories, but they will report the facts. The important distortions come not from reporters but from editors, who control what goes into the paper and what the paper goes after. Serious investigations take enormous blocks of time, with no guarantee of a big story at the end. Editors shape the news by the way they allocate manpower. Steven Lovelady of the Inquirer smelled a major story and put up to thirty staffers on it; Ben Bradlee of the Post did not.
Even when the results are in, editors can discredit good work by the way they handle it: the New York Post secured legitimate importing and then drove it into the ground with screaming headlines. Often enough, editors cut out disconsonant material: the New York Times uncovered one of the most baffling aspects of the Zaccaro case months before anyone else, and sat on it.
Editors, in short, act as filters of the vast amount of detail swarming across their desks. Sometimes they let through long columns; sometimes they squeeze out a few inches at best. The Times's filter is ostensibly determined by good taste and rigorous standards of proof (at least for stories that do not fit its outlook). The Wall Street Journal draws much of its strength from its willingness to use different, almost opposing, filters on its news columns and its editorial page. The New York Post occasionally seems to operate with no filters at all. To answer the question of bias in press coverage of Mrs. Ferraro one thus has to determine the amount and shape of the material presenting itself at the editor's filter and then ask whether that barrier would have been more or less porous if another type of person or institution had been involved.
The controversy over the Ferraro coverage, after all, almost never concerned the facts: with two notable exceptions, they were thoroughly verified. The dispute was over whether the facts should be printed. Mrs. Ferraro's father-in-law, Philip Zaccaro, the founder of P. Zaccaro & Co., the family business, had indeed vouched for the pistol permit of one of the Profaci brothers, major Mafia figures of the 50's, and had lost his own permit as a result. John Zaccaro himself had indeed been landlord or broker to several figures currently accused of a senior role in organized crime. Did these facts bear so thin a connection to the background of a potential President as not to warrant being followed up, or even mentioned?
Much as one can sympathize with the ordeal of the Zaccaro family, one must remind Mrs. Ferraro and her defenders that a great deal was at stake. The public was about to vote on a national ticket, and had to know everything it could about the persons in a position to sit in the Oval Office, and about those in whom they would place their trust. As recently as the Carter administration, some of the country's most sensitive regulatory bureaucracies had been devastated by the influence of the President's advisers. In the course of the campaign, John Zaccaro had mentioned that he would like to sit in on Cabinet meetings. The press had a duty to discover what sort of person he did business with—and there was much to discover.
The roughest blow for John Zaccaro, writes Mrs. Ferraro, was the guilty plea he had to enter on scheme-to-defraud charges resulting from a collapsed real-estate deal. The details were more serious than Mrs. Ferraro admits: for instance, one charge was that in a loan application he had told a bank his net worth was more than five times greater than it proved to be in the celebrated financial statement. But what was of national significance was Mr. Zaccaro's choice of partners. For nearly a year, it turned out, he had worked through a shell called the Teig Corporation that he co-owned with a disbarred lawyer and a convict still on probation for charges of conspiracy to commit fraud.
The disbarred lawyer, who had also been convicted (of extortion), was a tall and portly Irishman named Harold Farrell, sixty-four, the sort of genial rogue beloved by Jimmy Breslin. In her book, Mrs. Ferraro treats Farrell as something of a stray dog whom Mr. Zaccaro in a fit of generosity had invited to share his office. She also blames him for much of her husband's troubles, and the claim has some plausibility. Since his disbarment in 1967, Farrell seems to have lived on his wits, passing himself off in one law office after another by means of a considerable gift of blarney, and leaving consternation in his wake.
Mrs. Ferraro notably blames Farrell for her husband's embarassment when he was caught borrowing money from the estate of a mentally incompetent eighty-four-year-old widow. In a revealing passage she writes:
I was stunned to hear about the loans in the midst of everything else. “What's this all about?” I now asked John.
“Harold Farrell told me that it was perfectly legal to borrow the money for business and that in fact the loan would make more money for the estate,” John told me. “He was a lawyer so I took his advice.”
Harold Farrell. My blood ran cold. Harold Farrell was no longer a lawyer, a sorry fact John had found out too late.
Mrs. Ferraro does not add that according to court records her husband continued to make this sort of loan to himself several months after Farrell had been unmasked. (In the court hearing on the affair, Queens Supreme Court Judge Edwin Kassoff asked Mr. Zaccaro if he had consulted a lawyer before taking the loan. “It never entered my mind,” Mr. Zaccaro replied.)
In addition to giving bad advice, Farrell has had some genuinely sinister connections. When he filled out the papers for the Teig Corporation, he used a return address in the World Trade Center that turned out to be a den of international swindlers. Some reporters followed this trail to a hard bench in the New York City Housing Court, the most chaotic room in the city's judicial system, there to read the thick file of the Port Authority's eviction proceedings against FFC America Corp., occupants of Suite 8419, One World Trade Center. One morsel buried in the exhibits was an Interpol bulletin from Paris, dated June 18, 1981, warning that the president of First Finance Corporation, Paolo Pavanelli, was wanted for passing worthless checks drawn on fictitious Caribbean banks. A James P. Pavanelli had signed the lease for the FFC America suite, and an assortment of fugitives and phony Italian nobles had passed through his office. The Port Authority had nearly succeeded in ousting these questionable tenants in March 1984 when Farrell appeared at the last minute, claiming to have recently bought stock in FFC America and requesting a stay of the eviction.
The Teig Corporation papers bearing the Suite 8419 return address were filed on February 24, 1983, shortly after Mrs. Ferraro says that Farrell and Zaccaro met. Mr. Zaccaro has stated that he discovered Farrell was not a real lawyer and broke with him in December 1983. So for nearly a year, it appears, Farrell was in and out of both the FFC operation and the P. Zaccaro office.
Mr. Zaccaro denies that he knew anything about the inhabitants of Suite 8419. The New York Times knew a great deal—though it never shared this information with its readers. On July 24, 1984, less than a week after Mrs. Ferraro's nomination in San Francisco, the abrasive but talented Ralph Blumenthal was asking at the World Trade Center about Farrell (“You don't forget a call from Ralphie,” said my informant), and it appears from reading the subsequent Times stories that Farrell became a prime source for Blumenthal. Farrell himself, however, was treated relatively gently by the paper.
Perhaps the Times editors considered the trail to Suite 8419 too tenuous to pass through their filter. But Suite 8419 was emblematic of the demimonde of disgraced lawyers and delisted brokers in which Mr. Zaccaro, for whatever reason, had involved himself. Everyone in this society of con men, bag men, and swindlers seems to know everyone else. If you follow just one man's career, you quickly encounter an incredible array of shady characters, none of whom you would want in the kitchen of the vice-presidential mansion, let alone in the White House.
It may have been surprising, after the early rumors about the Mafia, that the hard news about John Zaccaro should turn out to be his involvement in a case of petty fraud. But it fits what we learned of his character and even jibes with Mrs. Farraro's affectionate vignettes of him. Although he did not have the disposition of a big-league criminal, he clearly was inclined to cut corners. To put it another, gentler, way, he could be the solid family man on whom Mrs. Ferraro depended and still fall into bad company. Indeed, the same qualities that endeared him to his family might have been those that prevented him from breaking totally with the “legacy” of past generations. For it seems clear that friendships with Mafia leaders had figured, and had to have figured, in the development of the Zaccaro family business.
News of this legacy first appeared in a September 13 Wall Street Journal editorial-page article by news reporters Anthony DeStefano, a specialist on the New York Mafia, and Jonathan Kwitny, a veteran investigator who is known in some circles as the Journal's resident leftist. The article treated Mrs. Ferraro and Mr. Zaccaro with some sympathy, suggesting that they had tried to break with the past. But the story also provoked a broad controversy among journalists, some of whom devoted more time to wondering why it had appeared on the editorial rather than the news pages than they did to checking its contents.
Mrs. Ferraro, in her book, calls the article “one of the most irresponsible and vicious” of the campaign. Yet it opened a thoroughly defensible line of inquiry. The article appeared on the editorial page because it focused on a series of historical questions about the Zaccaro firm which Mrs. Ferraro had refused to answer. (As a news article, it would have been recast to deal with clients whom Mrs. Ferraro and Mr. Zaccaro had themselves worked for.) Among its revelations was the news that in 1971 and 1973, Mrs. Ferraro had represented a Little Italy figure named Lawrence Latona in some real-estate transactions.
A little geography is necessary to understand the significance of Lawrence Latona. According to a series of federal and local investigators, the Ravenite Social Club at 247 Mulberry Street was the nerve center of the branch of the Gambino organized-crime family run by Aniello Dellacroce (the “little lamb of the cross,” in literal translalation). This nondescript storefront with religious figurines on the wall was founded in 1942, according to its incorporation papers, to further political, social, and athletic activities and “to inculcate in its members the highest ideals and conceptions of Americanism”; over the years, it had served as a setting for innumerable “sit-downs” (meetings to settle disputes among crime figures) and payoffs. The police had never been able to maintain a bug inside the Ravenite Club itself, though they did try surveillance from inside the trunk of a parked car and from parabolic microphones across the street, and managed to record conversations that seemed to them to involve loansharking payments, the planning of burglaries, and even the ordering of a murder in Las Vegas. One surveillance reports tells of intense activity within half an hour of the July 1979 assassination of Carmine Galente in Brooklyn.
Apartment 1 in the building across the street, 248 Mulberry, was the long-time home of Michael Vincent Catalano, the trusted lieutenant of Dellacroce. The building is owned by the Zaccaro family. Dellacroce, who died in December 1985, maintained his address half-a-block down, at 232 Mulberry. This building was owned by John Zaccaro and his mother until 1971, when they sold it to Latona and three other buyers. Latona's group was represented at the sale by Mrs. Ferraro. In September 1973, Mrs. Ferraro again represented the group when it paid off a mortgage.
In her book, Mrs. Ferraro mentions indignantly that in August 1984 U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani “suddenly called John down to his office to be questioned as a witness about a six-year-old real-estate transaction John had nothing to do with.” Other sources have said the federal investigation focused on Latona's group, although nothing has come of it so far. Latona told the New York Times that Mrs. Ferraro “was our attorney. I knew her husband.”
Who then is Lawrence Latona? In addition to his listed occupation as a “body broker” (an arranger of traditional Italian funerals) with an office in a storefront at 236 Mulberry, Latona is the building manager for 247 Mulberry, the site of the Ravenite Club. He is also one of the club's original incorporators.
The owner of 247 Mulberry is named Joseph LaForte, Sr., and thereby hangs another tale. Although LaForte has resisted the claim in court, the FBI and the New York police insist that he is an underboss of the Gambino family who reported to Dellacroce. He formerly described himself as a travel consultant to the Carefree Travel Agency, an outfit with a fascinating corporate history. He now operates the parking garage next door to the Ravenite. His name became one of the major red herrings in the Zaccaro story.
The city tax rolls list building owners and managers, and the entry for 21-25 Cleveland Place across the street from the P. Zaccaro office shows John Zaccaro as the employee of Joseph LaForte. As at least three reporters discovered independently, this entry is a mistake. Mr. Zaccaro did broker a sale of two of the three contiguous buildings to LaForte, and remained as the manager of the third when it was retained by the original owner, Dr. Donald Y.T. Tse of Westport, Connecticut. The tax rolls failed to catch the division of the property. When reporters finally figured the deal out, most of them forgot it.
Yet, like an episode of Ironside in which a missing corpse turns out to have been buried underneath another body, there is more to the story. Apparently only the Philadelphia Inquirer took the elementary step of checking city court records, because it was the only paper to report that the sale had led to a lawsuit. Dr. Tse broke his silence to tell the Inquirer that he felt John Zaccaro had forced him into the sale. He produced a letter from Zaccaro containing a remarkable echo of the movies: “Dr. Tse, you must take this offer because I will never get another buyer like this.” According to Dr. Tse, when he heard from an appraiser that the buildings were worth far more than the sale price, he tried to stall the closing. But La-Forte then brought suit to force the sale, reminding Dr. Tse that “the Plaintiff has been very patient.” Dr. Tse complained to the Inquirer that the Zaccaro agency appeared to have provided LaForte with a document to support his suit. When the Inquirer asked why he had not fired Zaccaro as the manager of his remaining building, he replied, “I couldn't. That is forbidden city.”
These stories were damaging enough, but the article that cut the deepest came in the October 18 New York Post. Under the headline, “The Ferraros of Newburgh: How the American Dream Started for One Family,” Post writers Guy Haw-tin and Jeff Wells claimed that Dominick Ferraro, Geraldine's father, ran his popular nightclub in the wide-open Hudson River city of the 1930's under the patronage of organized-crime boss Michael DeVasto. The story, replete with a picture of Legs Diamond and a gratuitous reference to Frank Niti and Eliot Ness, revealed that Mrs. Ferraro's mother and father had been charged with gambling violations shortly before her father's untimely death. The writers went further, implying that Dominick Ferraro had died under mysterious circumstances.
It was this insinuation, Mrs. Ferraro reports, that drove her to tears on a campaign flight, in one of the most noticed incidents of her campaign. In a remarkable postscript, Mrs. Ferraro writes that after the campaign she went back to Newburgh for the first time in forty years to conduct her own investigation. Seeking out her father's undertaker, and the housekeeper of his doctor, she learned that there was no mystery, and that the death was from natural causes as she had always thought.3
The attack on Mrs. Ferraro's father marked the climax of the campaign drama, the point at which her personal life seemed most out of control. It must be one of the factors that caused her to say at the time that if she could have seen all the pain the race would produce, she might not have embarked on it. (In her book, Mrs. Ferraro makes it emphatically clear that she has since changed her mind.) Yet the insinuation was not typical of the reporting on her family's affairs. Most of the other stories that irked Mrs. Ferraro produced legitimate information, extremely relevant to a voter's decision on a national ticket.
From her perspective, Mrs. Ferraro naturally pays little attention to an internal debate that was raging among the furies at her heels: were they being too harsh or too soft? Some journalists wondered aloud whether the press was wrong to hound her. Others asked, did the press hound her at all? Where one segment of the press complained about post-Watergate hypocrisy and a moral double standard, others doubted that a story existed at all. This internal debate is scanted by Mrs. Ferraro, but it raises the issue of press bias in an almost grotesquely extreme form.
If the press as a whole faced its role honestly, it would have to plead guilty to all of the charges against it. Some journalists did practice a double standard—in the sense, that is, that they stopped short on trails they would certainly have pursued in the case of a white male conservative. By the same token, some reporting on Mrs. Ferraro was indeed sensationalistic and savage. Both extremes were attributable to a failure which a large segment of the “establishment press” shared with Mrs. Ferraro herself—a failure to confront the full significance of the fact that a person who had been named to a position of potentially enormous importance had been exposed to some definitively unsavory connections.
1 By Geraldine A. Ferraro, with Linda Bird Francke, Bantam, 340 pp., $17.95.
2 In the book, Mrs. Ferraro makes several bitter references to the Wall Street Journal, though none to me specifically (not that I dissociate myself from my colleagues). My own article for the Journal, on the business deal for which John Zaccaro was later indicted and convicted, appeared late in the campaign and figured in Mrs. Ferraro's appearance on the Donahue show. At the time she quoted me in her husband's defense.
3 Mrs. Ferraro apparently missed the retraction the Post ran the day after the October 18 article in the form of an interview with the doctor who signed her father's death certificate. The Post could not resist bragging that it had located the ninety-two-year-old doctor when most of Newburgh thought he died long ago; in fact he did die shortly before Mrs. Ferraro herself made her return journey home.