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Passionate, pandering, ambitious or simply self-serving - all have been used at one time or another to describe the controversial career of broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera. Emerging from a legal background and Hispanic activism in the late-1960s, the charismatic Rivera began reporting for New York's WABC-TV in 1970, where an investigation into the horrendous conditions at a local institution for the mentally disabled won him a Peabody Award and national attention. Laudable correspondent work for programs like "20/20" (ABC, 1978- ) made him a rising star in the world of television news. When the humiliating failure of his live special "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault" (syndicated, 1986) made him a journalistic punch line, his career seemed all but over. Instead, Rivera embraced the sensationalistic approach more firmly than ever with his tabloid-driven daytime talk show "Geraldo" (syndicated, 1987-1998). Pioneering the realm of "Trash TV," Rivera's salaciously-themed episodes paved the way for the likes of Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer. Later attempts to reestablish himself as a serious journalist with such cable outlets as CNBC and Fox News Channel met with a mix of skepticism and curiosity....
Passionate, pandering, ambitious or simply self-serving - all have been used at one time or another to describe the controversial career of broadcast journalist Geraldo Rivera. Emerging from a legal background and Hispanic activism in the late-1960s, the charismatic Rivera began reporting for New York's WABC-TV in 1970, where an investigation into the horrendous conditions at a local institution for the mentally disabled won him a Peabody Award and national attention. Laudable correspondent work for programs like "20/20" (ABC, 1978- ) made him a rising star in the world of television news. When the humiliating failure of his live special "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault" (syndicated, 1986) made him a journalistic punch line, his career seemed all but over. Instead, Rivera embraced the sensationalistic approach more firmly than ever with his tabloid-driven daytime talk show "Geraldo" (syndicated, 1987-1998). Pioneering the realm of "Trash TV," Rivera's salaciously-themed episodes paved the way for the likes of Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer. Later attempts to reestablish himself as a serious journalist with such cable outlets as CNBC and Fox News Channel met with a mix of skepticism and curiosity. Never far from controversy, Rivera continued to raise eyebrows with incidents like his infamous "map in the sand" interview from Iraq, during which he revealed potentially sensitive information about ongoing U.S. Military operations. Boasting a career filled with impressive journalistic highs and embarrassing lows, Rivera defied the expectations of many critics by remaining a consistent media presence for more than four decades.
Born Gerald Michael Rivera on July 4, 1943 in Brooklyn, NY, he was the son of Puerto Rican immigrant, Cruz Allen Rivera, and Lillian Friedman, a woman of Russian-Jewish descent. Growing up in the NYC neighborhoods of Brooklyn and West Babylon, he was raised "mostly Jewish," in his words, despite his father's Hispanic heritage. After graduating high school, Rivera attended New York's Maritime College for two years before enrolling as an undergrad at the University of Arizona, from which he graduated in 1965. Keenly interested in the law, he worked for a period as an investigator with the New York City Police Department, then earned his J.D. from Brooklyn Law School in 1969 and did some post-graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania that same year. Working as a lawyer for the Latino activist group known as the Young Lords in 1970, Rivera was interviewed by a local news station during the group's occupation of an East Harlem church. With his urban good looks, verbal acumen and obvious passion, Rivera was noticed by station manager Al Primo, who was looking for a Latino reporter for WABC-TV's news team. After agreeing to change Gerald to the more ethnic Geraldo, Rivera officially began his career in broadcast journalism.
Ambitious and energetic, Rivera garnered national attention with his Peabody Award-winning exposé on the neglect and abuse endured by mentally handicapped patients at Staten Island's Willowbrook State School in 1972. After a few more years with WABC, Rivera hosted the news program "Good Night, America" (ABC, 1974-77), where he exclusively aired the first showing of the controversial Zapruder Film in 1975, giving the public at large its first glimpse of the grisly Kennedy assassination footage. He gained further notoriety in 1977 after the sudden death of Elvis Presley, whose demise had been erroneously attributed to a heart attack. Rivera's investigation into Presley's drug prescription records not only led to revealing the true cause of the King's death, but to the revocation of Presley's personal physician's medical license in Tennessee for overprescribing. Before long, Rivera was working as a frequent correspondent for such new programs as "Good Morning, America" (ABC, 1975- ) and "20/20" (ABC, 1978- ). His rising star faltered in 1985, after Rivera publicly criticized "20/20" creator-producer Roone Arledge for refusing to air a report on the relationships between Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy. Not pleased with the accusations of personal bias and conflicts of interest, Arledge unceremoniously fired Rivera as a correspondent.
Rivera wasted no time in orchestrating his comeback. A year later, the heavily-hyped special "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault" (syndicated, 1986) was broadcast live to a record-setting number of riveted viewers across the country. Cutting into regularly scheduled programming, Rivera breathlessly speculated about what might be hidden within the infamous mobster's bricked-over hiding place underneath Chicago's Lexington Hotel, one of Capone's known headquarters. Accompanied by medical examiners (in case a body was found) and representatives from the IRS (in the event of unreported loot being discovered), a disappointed and humiliated Rivera was left sifting through meaningless debris and a few empty bottles that he attempted to imbue with significance by claiming that they had once contained "moonshine bathtub gin." Despite the laughable anti-climax of the event, it became the highest-rated syndicated special ever aired at the time, and led not to the end of Rivera's career, but to its new beginning.
Rivera embarked on the next phase of his career the following year when he launched the daytime talk show "Geraldo" (syndicated, 1987-1998). Lurid and theatrical from its inception, Rivera's confrontational, provocative hosting style, combined with salaciously themed episodes, earned the program the dubious characterization of "Trash TV" by the end of its first season. Rivera further solidified his reputation as a sensational muckraker with his investigations, both on his show and in several primetime specials, into the supposed proliferation of satanic cults and ritual abuse throughout America. Most infamous, however, was an incident in a 1988 episode of "Geraldo" on which an extremely violent melee broke out between Rivera's guests, comprised of representatives from various white-supremacists, anti-racists, and African-American and Jewish activists. During the altercation - in which punches were thrown by nearly everyone involved, including Rivera - the host was hit in the face with a chair, resulting in a broken nose. It also gave him some of the highest ratings of his career, with buzz building about the incident even before the episode had aired. The notoriety came at a price, though, and for many, Rivera's reputation as a serious journalist had been irreversibly damaged by the embarrassing fiasco.
Attempting a course correction in 1996, Rivera gave the show a more subdued, serious tone and changed the name to "The Geraldo Rivera Show" to reflect this new direction. Apparently, the newfound move toward respectability failed to sway audiences. In 1998, the program was canceled. While still serving as the host of "Geraldo" he also began anchoring "Rivera Live" (CNBC, 1994-2002), a more journalistic endeavor on which he examined legal-political scandals of the day like the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. And while Rivera's articulate dissection of the issues and astute legal analysis reminded viewers of his background as an attorney and activist, his brash, self-referential and confrontational onscreen manner did little to alter the tabloid TV persona he had become so deeply associated with. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Rivera joined Fox News as a war correspondent, traveling to Afghanistan for frontline reports. He attracted negative attention and the ire of the U.S. Military in the spring of 2003 when during a televised interview from Iraq, he began to discuss an upcoming military operation, even going so far as to illustrate their current position by drawing a map in the sand. Saying that Rivera's report had compromised "operational security," officials from Central Command insisted that the journalist leave the country and continue his reports from Kuwait.
That same year, Rivera left CNBC to anchor another program at his new network home with "Geraldo at Large" (Fox News Channel/syndication, 2003- ). In the years that followed, Rivera could be seen providing sensationalistic coverage on Fox News for such events as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and promoting more personal efforts, like his fifth non-fiction book HisPanic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S. in 2008. Clearly enjoying another journalistic scoop, Rivera was the first to break the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Special Forces during an airing of "At Large" on May 1, 2011. Later, an elated Rivera would state that the moment had been the highlight of his storied career. In October of that year, Rivera and his camera crew were literally booed away from covering New York's Occupy Wall Street protests with endless chants of "Fox News lies!" In a far cry from his days as a left-leaning political activist, Rivera announced that he would be hosting a daily talk show on WABC Radio, the home of conservative media personality Rush Limbaugh and former sister station of WABC-TV, where Rivera had received his start in broadcast journalism more than 40 years earlier.
By Bryce Coleman
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CAST: (feature film)
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