Back from fighting the terrorists, Geraldo Rivera graced Yale with his presence Wednesday.
Love him or hate him, Geraldo is an undeniable cultural icon, one of the few one-name celebrities we have left. And when the average speaker at Yale is someone like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, or Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, you simply cannot pass up an opportunity to see a man who once had fat from his buttocks implanted into his forehead on national television.
I wanted to listen to Geraldo talk about guys who dig fat chicks, not about marines in Fallujah.
I should have known better. Ever since giving up his daytime talk show in 1998, Geraldo has been on a mission to prove to the world that he is a serious journalist. Geraldo has undergone many transformations in life: from a pseudo-Puerto Rican street activist (he was born Jerry Rivers and raised Jewish), to a local television reporter, to a daytime talk show host. His latest incarnation is dashing foreign correspondent. But the problem is that he went from tabloid trash to network news faster than he did from Jerry Rivers to Geraldo Rivera.
Geraldo began his presentation with video of a recent dispatch he filed from Iraq. In it, unidentified snipers shoot at the convoy in which Geraldo’s camera crew is traveling. Geraldo exclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just been attacked! We’ve been sniped! We’ve been hit! We’ve been hit!” After some yelling between Geraldo and his entourage, the SUVs come to a halt. Geraldo jumps out of the vehicle as bullets whiz past and his security detail curses at him to get back into the car. The video quickly cuts to Geraldo comically sprints along the side of the highway, making sure his team is alright, joking with his driver (who was bleeding), and generally saving the day.
Never mind the fact that there are marines and Iraqi civilians dying every day in Iraq, what really matters, what really counts as news, is Geraldo Rivera running around in a flak jacket dodging bullets. On Wednesday, Rivera criticized news coverage of the post-war reconstruction as “much too grim” for emphasizing violence over the positive moves Iraqis have made in forming local governments, slashing unemployment and restoring human rights. I guessed I missed Geraldo pointing out these strides amidst his duck and cover theatrics.
Though he emphasized his numerous trips to Iraq over the past year, not once did Rivera mention the circumstances surrounding the incident in which he was kicked out. Traveling with the 101st Airborne in central Iraq last March, Geraldo drew a diagram of Iraq in the sand indicating troop movement towards Baghdad, all on a live news feed. After a bitter public feud in which he described the NBC reporters and producers who covered his fall as “some rats from my former network,” Geraldo was forced to leave the country.
No reputable news organization should let Geraldo take to its airwaves. I’m not trying to imply that by giving away the strategic plans of the United States military and endangering the lives of an untold number of our troops that Geraldo wishes America any sort of ill will. He’s no Peter Arnett, far from it. Indeed, Geraldo stressed that America’s mission in Iraq is just and that both John Kerry and George Bush stand united in seeing it through to success. Geraldo is a patriot. But he also happens to be a sloppy, grand-standing egomaniac.
Geraldo’s phony heroics as a war correspondent were most apparent during the war in Afghanistan. It was there that he infamously carried around a pair of pearl-handled pistols claiming that if he found Osama bin Laden he would “kick his head in, then bring it home and bronze it.” According to a military advisor quoted in the Columbus Dispatch, Geraldo also offered to bribe American-allied Afghani fighters to tell him the location of Taliban snipers so he could capture the enemy on camera.
Geraldo once had the nerve to call Jerry Springer “the most shameful man in America” in Playboy magazine, no less. At least Springer understands his role in society and decided against running for statewide office in Illinois.
When it comes to Geraldo, he’s always the story. There is no other subject. He asserted on Wednesday that “some” have designated him as the originator of “participatory journalism.” Except that he is no journalist. He is a showman who constantly inserts himself, as a character, into the “news” he reports. He does not “cross the line,” as many of his critics maintain, for there is no line to cross. With him, it’s all Geraldo, all the time.
I was more than a little disappointed to spend an hour listening to Geraldo without hearing the mustachioed macho man discuss the incidents that actually made him a household name: the O.J. trial, having his nose broken by a chair-throwing neo-Nazi, announcing to the world that he had obtained Al Capone’s safe deposit box only to find it empty upon opening it before an audience of millions; these are the tales of cultural memory that Geraldo will be remembered for, not his work as a war correspondent. What was worse, however, was that Geraldo was seemingly able to convince most people in the audience that he was some sort of expert on international affairs. No one asked about his past journalistic improprieties. Perhaps they were afraid he was packing heat.
James Kirchick is a sophomore in Pierson College.