All Hail Geraldo!

He authored contemporary media's meta-narrative-and this is how we thank him?


If no man is a prophet in his hometown, then it's also true that visionaries are often ignored in their chosen professions—especially when that profession is journalism, a field so indebted to routine plagiarism and copycatting that it regularly sacrifices those ink-stained wretches who plunder their colleagues most efficiently and effectively.

How else to explain the cold-verging-on-frigid shoulder currently being given to Geraldo Rivera, who after a long and legendary career is currently wandering the low-rent corridors of the Fox News Channel like a forgotten houseguest? These days, when the man who may be more hated by the U.S. military than Osama Bin Laden is not lounging in limbo on his own unwatched, routinely preempted late-weekend-night show, he's been reduced to popping in as a special guest star on Rupert Murdoch's update of Punch and Judy, Hannity & Colmes. For the maverick journo who broke the Willowbrook scandal way back when and played himself in 1992's Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo, this latter indignity is the rough equivalent of Orson Welles' taking a load off on Dinah Shore's TV couch to do card tricks while mumbling Shakespeare.

Yet as current events suggest, we news junkies are all simply fleas living in Geraldo's overgrown mustache and chest hair. Forget for the moment the leading role the broken-nosed neo-Nazi brawler may have played in creating what scolds routinely dub "trash TV." Forget, too, his prurient 1991 autobiography, Exposing Myself, with its tales of affairs with Margaret Trudeau, Bette Midler, and countless others, a book that helped define the '90s as the "Decade of the Penis."

Consider instead what are arguably the top stories of the day: the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the equally fruitless searches for Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (whether Saddam's boys are still at large is another question, it seems). These stories combine an absolute lack of success in their putative goals with boffo ratings; they hold people's attention despite—or perhaps because of—their many dead ends, blind alleys, and disappointing revelations.

Which is to say that they are simply the latest variations on Geraldo's pathbreaking 1986 special, The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault, in which he took a couple of excruciatingly boring and painful hours to open the mobster's legendary "secret" vault on air and find absolutely nothing—except a massive audience. The Al Capone special, widely dismissed as a career-killing flop, actually turned in the highest ratings ever for a syndicated special. "My career was not over, I knew, but had just begun," Geraldo wrote of the show, the popularity of which allowed him to launch his own tabloid TV career in earnest. "And all because of a silly, high-concept stunt that failed to deliver on its titillating promise."

Little did he—or we—realize that he had uncovered not simply a personal path to success, but a template for major stories, especially as the 24-hour news world started cranking up on cable and on the Internet. Indeed, when we went without sleep for weeks waiting for an accurate, or even meaningful, vote tally in the 2000 presidential election, Geraldo was there, passing out cups of coffee. Whenever we stay up past our bedtimes to catch the latest non-developments in the Jon Benet Ramsey case, Geraldo is there, too. And whenever we pause to read, or listen to, or watch the latest inconclusive info on, say, Jimmy Hoffa, Geraldo is there too, in spirit if not in the flesh.

We can only pray that, if there's a god in heaven and a devil in hell, when the anthrax mailer is finally brought to justice, Geraldo will be among the first half-dozen cable talk-show hosts to interview Gloria Allred and Geoffrey Fieger on the matter.