Happy Anniversary, Geraldo

Ross Becker

40 years ago today Geraldo Rivera began his career telling stories on TV. Love him or hate him, you can't ignore him. If you chose to make a living as a journalist, his career is a study in contradiction and evolution. I have cursed him and I have applauded him.

I am writing about Geraldo today because I have had two close encounters with him over my career. One is worth forgetting, but the other is worth talking about. The first encounter was as a young weekend reporter at WTHR in Indianapolis. I was in the newsroom on a Saturday afternoon, when I heard someone banging on the double glass main doors of the TV station. I went to the lobby and there was a long-haired and determined Geraldo with a camera crew demanding that I let them in and fire up the film processor to develop their reels. After a few calls to my boss to determine that even Geraldo could not get the station to pay overtime, he left.

The second time was years later, after I had conducted an exclusive, post-trial interview with O.J. Simpson. Geraldo called me and the first words out of his mouth were, “I don't know you, but how could you do it! How could you give that killer a soapbox?” What a way to start a conversation. I was on the defensive. He was angry, but would not admit that he was upset he didn't get the interview. Instead, he was upset that I had “sold out” by giving O.J. the opportunity to tell his story.

I tried to explain to Geraldo that the interview was journalistically sound. I was not restricted in my questions. It was not edited in any way. I did not pay O.J. for the interview. I was acting as any reporter would act. I asked questions. I never expected he would fall to his knees and confess to killing his wife and Ron Goldman. O.J. Simpson had been acquitted of murder and had never taken the witness stand to tell his story.

Geraldo was still upset and never seemed to hear me. He finally asked if I would appear on his talk show and discuss it. I had nothing to hide, so I did. It was clearly HIS show. He steered the conversation and the conclusion. Despite what the jury said, Geraldo was clearly convinced O.J. was a killer and did not deserve being questioned by the likes of me. So be it.

Journalists are usually neutral. They try to tell all sides of a story, whether they agree with them or not. Geraldo has been unapologetically different. From the beginning, he has been an advocate. He redefined the practice of journalism. He morphed from liberal New York street lawyer to anchor to talk show host to writer to network correspondent to, now, special reporter for Fox News and friend of the troops. 40 years of his personal and professional change has also changed the profession. That is something you cannot and should not ignore.

Categories: Becker’s Digital Notebook