By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Media whipping boy? Yesterday's news, says Geraldo Rivera. And as TV news fades to infotainment, Rivera casts himself as the veteran. His latest show begins tonight.
He considers, for a moment, the landscape these days.
Dan Rather forced off the CBS Evening News. ABC anchor Peter Jennings' tragic death from cancer. Tom Brokaw's retirement from the NBC Nightly News. Ted Koppel leaving ABC's Nightline.
Given the way the TV news business is going these days, Geraldo Rivera can't help feeling like the last man standing from a generation of news broadcasters.
"I hope I'm the rock 'n' roll graybeard . . . the wise man of the new generation," Rivera, 62, said with characteristic modesty, calling from his New Jersey home office while caring for his 2-month-old baby, Sol Rivera.
"I've been at it for 35 years," he said. "All these thousands of stories and situations . . . I don't think people feel - TV critics may feel that way - but I don't think the people feel monolithically about what I do."
Ah, the TV critics. Certainly, those who write about TV content have had their fun at Rivera's expense, chronicling his self-focused reports and parodying his bombastic style.
Rivera may give them new ammunition starting today, with the debut of his syndicated show Geraldo At Large on TV stations nationwide, including many of the Fox network's 35 owned and operated outlets.
Presented as a replacement for Fox's revival of the tabloid TV show A Current Affair, Rivera's program will likely echo his weekend program on Fox News Channel - raising suspicion that it may be a precursor to a new national evening news program from the network.
Already, executives such as Fox News Channel creator Roger Ailes have said they plan to be more involved with local news operations - a chilling idea for fans of newscasts at stations such as Tampa's WTVT-Ch. 13, which offer a more restrained approach in synch with local tastes.
But Rivera said those who expect his show to be a template of a new national newscast are missing the point.
"You've got a mature, national network news division producing a syndicated news program, which I don't think has happened before," he said. "Having that ability to tap into the worldwide resources of Fox News (and) the resource of the Tampa station . . . that is historic in and of itself."
Rivera's most recent food fight with critics came after a Sept. 5 column by New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley on TV's Hurricane Katrina coverage, in which she wrote: "Fox's Geraldo Rivera did his rivals one better: yesterday, he nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety."
It turns out Stanley's observation was more wishful thinking than reality. And though the New York Times resisted publishing a correction for 22 days - amid threats by Rivera to sue the paper and criticism from the newspaper's own public editor - the flamboyant newscaster finally got a grudging admission of error from a mainstream newspaper.
(Though New York Times public editor Byron Calame couldn't help writing, "One of the real tests of journalistic integrity is being fair to someone who might be best described by a four-letter word.")
After four decades covering news on camera, Rivera sounds tired of the "gotcha" game critics play while reviewing his work.
"The Fox years have accelerated the process . . . because there's an animus for Fox as well as for me," said Rivera, who went to work for Fox News Channel in 2001. "It's intellectually lazy to attack me at this point. I've been parodied by four decades of Saturday Night Live: Who's going to beat Jim Carrey? Just run with the lemmings and put down Geraldo."
But even as he tries to cast the critical coverage as the product of a "country club . . . cocktail party circuit" mainstream media mentality, Rivera himself creates much of the material they use.
There was the two-hour live 1986 special on the opening of Al Capone's vault, which revealed a dirt pile and bottle of gin. In 2001, he claimed to be reporting from a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan, when he was actually 50 miles away. ("A mistake," Rivera now says.)
In 2003, he drew a map in the sand to illustrate a story that the Pentagon claimed gave away crucial troop location information in Iraq, leading the military to demand he leave the country. And this year, he drew snickers by volunteering to shave his distinctive mustache if Michael Jackson was convicted of child molestation charges.
Suggest that such gaffes and stunts cheapen the news he's seeking to report - most recently, he was in tears while holding up children to the camera during coverage of hurricane victims' plight in New Orleans - and Rivera shrugs off the criticism, certain that such navel-gazing can only be the province of lesser men.
"There's the audience of the "in crowd,' and there's everybody else," he said. "I'm welcomed by the vast majority of people . . . the GIs and the first responders . . . who feel we're in the same situation, we risk the same thing. And anybody who wasn't filled with rage (in Katrina's aftermath) . . . you were emotionally dead. That's the ignorance of not having been there."
If Rivera's on-air reporting style seems familiar - the injection of himself into the story, liberal dollops of his own opinion in the reportage and a pugnacious, in-your-face delivery - experts say it may be because so many other reporters are now doing it.
"Geraldo was that voice in the news business who didn't mind giving his opinion . . . wore his heart and his opinions on his sleeve," said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Once upon a time, that was unusual. Now, turn on any cablecast and you'll see the same things. Geraldo is still a brand on its own . . . like Kleenex or Xerox . . . but there are a lot of people doing Geraldo these days."
Indeed, a look at the way CNN's Anderson Cooper or Fox's Shepard Smith channeled viewer outrage while challenging public officials in Katrina coverage, revealed a hint or two of Rivera's influence. But the critical acclaim Cooper and Smith received for their work suggest the pupils may have outstripped the teacher.
"There's a place for what Geraldo does in the universe of journalistic commentary," said Thompson. "I'm just not sure they've always found the right place for him to be . . . including this new show."
But Rivera exudes typical bravado when asked about re-entering the rough-and-tumble world of syndicated TV, which he left in 1998 when his self-titled talk show was canceled.
Though many Fox-developed syndicated shows have quickly faded - including Good Day Live and Affair - he remains confident his show will avoid the slump which has doomed so many other programs, by focusing on society's flashpoints.
"There's no one who didn't notice what the victims from Katrina looked like . . . (and) if we don't understand the impact of race and poverty in this country, we are royally screwed," he said, noting an early At Large episode will feature children separated from parents during Hurricane Katrina's chaotic aftermath who remain without their families.
"It's interesting that the Katrina coverage hearkened back to those topics . . . what I've always covered," Rivera added. "I feel like the news business has come back to me, rather than the other way around."
-- Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or email@example.com See his blog at www.sptimesphotos.com/blogs/mediaAT A GLANCE
Geraldo at Large debuts at 7 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13.