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Geraldo Rivera, Fox and Me

Geraldo Rivera pals around with Fox colleague Sean Hannity at the launch of Rivera's book <em>The Geraldo Show: A Memoir</em> in New York City in 2018.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images
Geraldo Rivera pals around with Fox colleague Sean Hannity at the launch of Rivera's book The Geraldo Show: A Memoir in New York City in 2018.

Updated June 30, 2023 at 8:33 AM ET

Geraldo Rivera has been a constant showman at Fox News for nearly a generation. Now, the curtain is falling.

This news arrived to us, as so much news about Rivera does, via Rivera himself, thanks to an interview with The Associated Press, and a stream of Tweets in which he ruminates on his career, exults in praise, responds to insults, and, of course, provides an obligatory shirtless selfie.

That one, from last Friday, was entitled simply "80 year old contemplating retirement." For the record, Rivera, who routinely goes out of his way to proclaim his patriotism and to metaphorically wrap himself in the American flag, will turn 80 on July 4th.

He had earlier announced that Thursday and Friday would be his final appearances on The Five, the top-rated show on cable news with no real competition since Fox canceled star Tucker Carlson's program, as Rivera contemplated what role he could hold at the network. That's not in the cards now.

"I'm not going to be on The Five. I've been fired from The Five, and as a result of that, I quit Fox," Rivera tweeted in a video he posted from Jones Beach Inlet, as he made his way to Manhattan by boat, his gray hair and mustache fluttering in the sea breeze.

"We reached an amicable conclusion with Geraldo over the past few weeks and look forward to celebrating him on Fox & Friends, which will be his last appearance on the network," Fox said in a statement released by a spokesperson Thursday night.

Rivera's Friday appearance on the network's morning show came after lengthy discourse mocking President Biden's appearance on MSNBC and Hunter Biden's scandals, and a brief performance from Skillet, a Christian hard rock group. Rivera didn't sugarcoat his departure, saying he had been fired by Fox from The Five and reiterating that he had quit. The network then ran a lengthy video tribute to his five decades in television.

He proclaimed himself "touched."

A history of head-turning decisions, all playing out on TV

As a journalist who has covered the media, and Rivera, since 2000, I must confess to watching all this with no small interest.

Rivera, a muckraking local television news journalist turned network star at ABC News and CNBC, proved to be an award-winning and self-promoting sensation. He built up his own brand decades before the word "influencer" had been coined, talking network executives into primetime specials and daytime talk shows filled with stories of scandal and dysfunction.

He memorably opened up the legendary gangster Al Capone's vault on live TV to reveal... nothing. And he famously had his nose broken by achair flung his way during a brawl between neo-Nazis and a Black civil rights activist that erupted on his tabloid TV talk show Geraldo. He unfairly questioned the military recognitions of a Democratic U.S. representative who called for President Bill Clinton's resignation after the disclosure Clinton had lied under oath about an affair. (Two decades later, Rivera would threaten those who would impeach then President Donald Trump in 2019 that they would have to "come through" him.)

This was all a long time ago. In the many years since, however, Rivera has relied on his single-name status to sell himself. "There's just me and Oprah," he occasionally told executives.

After the September 2001 terror attacks, Rivera turned to his former boss at CNBC, Roger Ailes, who went on to lead Fox News. Rivera begged for a chance to cover the looming invasions of Afghanistan (and then, as it turned out, Iraq) for Fox News. Ailes signed him up.

Rivera managed to make the war on al-Qaida about him. About whether he had really spotted Osama bin Laden in the hills of Tora Bora. About his stridently jingoistic tone, given he was ostensibly there as a reporter, not a pundit. About whether he was personally being shot at by al-Qaida snipers. About his decision to carry a gun in a war zone — a move that can endanger other journalists covering war, as it makes them far more likely to be viewed as combatants by either or both sides.

Praying on not-so-very "hallowed ground"

And then there was his decision to broadcast footage of himself reciting the Lord's Prayer over the site where he reported a U.S. bombing raid had killed three U.S. service members along with numerous Afghan allies.

"We walked over what I consider hallowed ground today. We walked over the spot where the friendly fire took so many of our, our men, and the mujahideen yesterday," he told viewers.

Hallowed that ground may have been – but it was separated by hundreds of miles of difficult-to-navigate terrain from the spot in Kandahar Province where the fighters were actually killed. He rebroadcast the claims on Fox 12 hours later. A Fox colleague handed me the raw videotape in a suburban parking lot so I could review both treatments. (Remember, this was more than two decades ago.)

When called on the flagrant discrepancy, Rivera explained it as an innocent mistake made in the "fog of war."

Journalists in Tora Bora for MSNBC and CNN told me they knew the location of the deadly incident within minutes thanks to satellite phone connections to colleagues in New York and elsewhere.

In our interview before my story ran, Rivera yelled at me, questioned my credentials, and recited his career highlights. And yet he paused to offer the most clear-cut self-analysis that I've ever heard a broadcast journalist give on the record.

"There's been an aspect of boosterism that I would cop to," he told me. "I clearly have indulged in, not the Geraldo of syndicated [daytime television] days, but a more impassioned presentation."

Fox stood by Rivera, never broadcasting a correction, instead merely saying he made "an honest mistake."

Nonetheless, Rivera spent years coming after me. He sought to convince my bosses to retract the stories, comparing me to Janet Cooke, the reporter for the Washington Post who had to give back a Pulitzer Prize after it was revealed she made up her story. He told a reporter he wanted to break my nose. (Never did.) He told Jay Leno on the Tonight Show that I had penis envy. He spent a year fruitlessly trying to get an award bestowed to me revoked. The uproar that ensued from my coverage was, he told the Atlantic, "the most grievous wound."

He once called me "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." I have deployed that for many years as the start to my official NPR biography. Naturally, I have a wall in my study filled with Geraldo editorial cartoons. I suspect he and I have that in common.

Later, Rivera devoted a significant portion of his memoir about his Fox years to the incident, saying I had caused a scandal to hang over him for decades. The book is titled - what else? - The Geraldo Show.

An unlikely voice of reason at Fox News

His role at Fox dissipated as the years passed. His show Geraldo at Large gave way to his co-hosting role at The Five, a show expressly designed to be ego-proof, as it featured a cadre of rotating hosts.

On The Five, Rivera played the liberal treading water in a sea of conservatives. The assignment represented Fox's philosophy of balance: The putative lefty was a longtime registered Republican who weighed running for Senate in that party from two states, New Jersey and Ohio. A former contestant on Trump's Celebrity Apprentice, he also supported Trump politically for years, defining himself as a friend. He only broke with Trump after the then-president refused to accept Joe Biden's win in 2020.

Nonetheless, he often has been of late an unlikely voice of reason, reminding his conservative colleagues of factual objections to baseless or extreme claims they've made. He's sought to counter baseless assertions about immigrants and the pandemic and other heated topics on the show.

Rivera says his verbal tussles on the air and on social media with co-host Greg Gutfeld contributed to Fox's decision to drop him from the show. (Gutfeld has been promoted to be host of the network's key 10 p.m. weeknight time slot.) Fox hasn't commented on that claim.

A telling coda to the Geraldo Show

As for Rivera himself: here's a perhaps telling coda to the Tora Bora debacle:

When his Fox memoir was published a few years ago, I received an invitation to the book party at a large bar at a restaurant frequented by Fox News staffers. It was just across the street from the network's headquarters in midtown Manhattan.

I asked his publicist whether he was aware of our history. The invitation was extended, nonetheless.

I ducked into the party after work (Fox is only a few blocks from NPR's New York bureau, where I am based). Geraldo was standing far away, at the head of a long line of well-wishers seeking their books to be signed. I walked down a corridor to get a drink at the bar which, as luck had it, stood just a few feet from an archway where he was holding court.

I waited for a student to wrap up chatting with the evening's star, and then introduced myself, congratulating Rivera for the publication of his memoir. He asked if I had read it. I said I had. He asked again, saying, 'Yeah, but the parts about you?' I said I had. He smiled and inquired what I thought of it.

I told him that it was his night, and I was there to say hello, not to step on his moment. But if he wanted to learn what I thought, I said, I'd be happy to take him out for a coffee or a beer.

He roared appreciatively and thanked me for stopping in.

As in so many ways, the Geraldo show was for show. I would have been happy to get that drink. We haven't. Not yet, anyway.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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