Ready for crime time: How organized crime and the U.S. Senate made TV history in New Orleans
In January 1951, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee hit the road on a 14-city tour of the country with fellow members of a Senate special committee assigned to investigate the influence of organized crime. The committee’s first stop: New Orleans. WDSU-TV, the city’s fledgling NBC affiliate — which only three years earlier had become the city’s first television station — asked permission to broadcast the proceedings at a time long before anyone had thought of open-meetings laws that would guarantee citizens’ right to watch their government in action. This was an innovation, and other cities followed suit as the committee traversed the nation creating what would become of the country’s first examples of must-see TV.
Unlike the early 1950s, casino gambling is legal in the New Orleans area, although illegal gambling operations are shut down with some regularity. Televised congressional hearings, which were unheard of before the Kefauver Committee hit the road, have become staples of viewing, and a major content source for C-SPAN and 24-hour cable news channels including CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
- New Orleans viewers saw local sheriffs admit to the committee that they were less than scrupulous about enforcing laws against gambling and prostitution.
- At the time, casinos were rampant in Jefferson Parish until Frank Clancy, the all-powerful sheriff, faced Sen. Charles Tobey of New Hampshire, a committee member, who gave him a choice: Close the casinos or face prison time for being in contempt of Congress. Iris Kelso, who was writing for The New Orleans States then, said Clancy subsequently made a quick telephone call. Within minutes, she said, the lights went out in the parish’s casinos.
- When Carlos Marcello, the Mafia boss of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, appeared before the committee, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment 15 times, refusing to testify on the grounds it might incriminate him. In its report, the committee said he was “one of the worst criminals in the country.”
- “Diamond Jim” Moran, whose La Louisiane Restaurant was teeming with illegal slot machines, took advantage of the free air time to plus his French Quarter eatery, which, he said, offered “food for kings.”
- By the time the committee reached New York, five of that city’s seven television stations followed WDSU’s lead and carried live coverage of the hearings. Some people there organized watch parties.
- The most famous – or infamous – witness at the Kefauver hearings was Frank Costello, a Mafia boss and underworld leader, not only because of his status but also because of what he did: He refused to testify on live television because it would keep him from talking privately with his attorney. Kefauver, who was not about to let him off the hook, arranged a compromise: The cameras would focus only on Costello’s hands, which performed an antic dance – fidgeting with his glasses and reaching for a handkerchief to mop his face, for instance – as he faced questioning.
- In an interim report, the committee said television magnified the impact of the hearings and had “a most salutary effect in awakening the public to the menace of organized racketeering that now confronts our national life.”
- Kefauver, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in a coonskin cap, became a celebrity as a result of the hearings. But fame didn’t help him in the 1956 presidential election, when he was Adlai Stevenson’s choice for the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential slot. The two lost to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard M. Nixon,
Despite the spotlight that the Kefauver committee hearings cast on racketeering in the nation in general and New Orleans in particular, illegal gambling carried on for several years, but the Mafia’s clout has waned as older dons died and the many members of the younger generation just weren’t interested. The Kefauver hearings did, however, show that there would be a viewing audience for congressional hearings. Millions tuned in to watch the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch take on U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954; congressional investigations of the Vietnam war; the Senate Watergate Committee’s interrogations of some of the most powerful members of the Nixon administration; and, most recently, the testimony of the fired FBI Director James Comey.