Intrepid foreign correspondent Geraldo Rivera . . . no, wait. Talk-show pioneer Geraldo Rivera . . . um, no. Ah, here we go: Self-aggrandizing tabloid TV legend Geraldo Rivera is back on broadcast TV after a long exile on cable, doing what Geraldo once did so well -- delving into the squalid and lurid.
Geraldo's new show is called "Geraldo at Large," which sounds like a police bulletin ("Calling all cars: Geraldo at large! Arrest on sight!") but is actually a half-hour daily newsmagazine show. It's debatable whether America needs another half-hour daily newsmagazine show just now, let alone one hosted by Geraldo. In any case, it debuted last night at 11 on WTTG (Channel 5), in the post-late-news slot occupied by the briefly revived "A Current Affair."
Suffice to say, it ain't "Nightline." Oh, it would be "Nightline," if Ted Koppel used sinister-sounding music and swooshing sound effects and did stories on chopper crashes, a transvestite beauty contest and a college TV station that broadcast a porn video.
Say what you will about Geraldo's trademark style -- you could say, for starters, that it's sensational, bombastic and melodramatic -- but the man does not lack for distinctive style. In fact, Geraldo is kind of a one-name brand, like Madonna or Cher, or possibly Charo.
Younger viewers who know Geraldo only from his later, relatively mellow period as a talk host on CNBC and a reporter/talk host on Fox News Channel probably will not realize that he practically invented trash TV a few decades ago. His syndicated talk show specialized in such topics as "Men Who Marry Prostitutes" and "Drag Queens on Parade."
One of those Geraldo shows in 1988 devolved into an infamous chair-throwing riot, during which Geraldo wound up with a broken nose.
Geraldo also once blew open Al Capone's vault in a much-hyped live prime-time broadcast. After two hours of buildup, he found . . . a mostly empty vault. Not long after that debacle, he hosted an infamous two-hour special on NBC about satanic cults that touched off a mini-satanic-cult panic across the nation. He once had fat from his buttocks injected into his forehead on TV because . . . well, it wasn't exactly clear why.
More recently, Geraldo has gotten back to his roots, as an admittedly vivid reporter. Describing himself as a "warrior journalist" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Geraldo did some colorful foreign reporting for Fox News Channel, albeit while occasionally becoming part of the stories he was covering. Among other things, he misstated the location of a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan (protesting wildly when the Baltimore Sun called him on it) and got kicked out of Iraq by the Department of Defense for drawing a map showing the location and movements of some U.S. troops.
Still more recently, during Geraldo's reporting in New Orleans on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New York Times alleged that he nudged aside a relief worker so his camera crew could tape him as he helped a woman in a wheelchair. Geraldo denied doing so and made a great show of demanding a correction. The Times refused. The paper grudgingly relented after 22 days, peevishly explaining in an "Editor's Note" that it understood the comment as a "figurative reference to Mr. Rivera's flamboyant intervention."
Shows you what a crazy world we live in: The New York Times puts its integrity up against Geraldo Rivera's -- and loses.
All that is by way of saying that Geraldo might be circling back to where he came from. "Geraldo at Large" suggests the midcareer Geraldo, the trashmeister rather than the reporter.
His big set piece on the opening show was about "convicted sex predators" who were "let loose" in the chaos after Katrina. It's a worthy topic, but that's impossible to tell from the reporting. By "let loose," Geraldo doesn't mean "escaped from prison," but rather, "cannot be accounted for by parole officers and sex-offender registries." That's far less of a problem, however, than the accounting itself: Geraldo put the number of "disappeared sex predators" at "more than 2,000," followed by reporter Laura Ingle, who cited 4,000. That was followed by a Houston police official who estimated the number at 1,400. Later, another officer guessed it was 1,300.
After a brief series of headlines from Fox News anchor Laurie Dhue (chopper crash somewhere, transvestite beauty contest somewhere, campus porn somewhere, etc.), the show's other big "report" was an update of sorts about a homicide somewhere. Remarkably, the "reporter" on this one was Mark Fuhrman, the former LAPD detective whose testimony was discredited in the O.J. Simpson trial. After much wild speculating (including a question from Geraldo about whether "satanism" was connected to the crime), Geraldo interviewed a defense attorney, who very forthrightly stated, "We can all speculate about what's going on, but there is more to this story, I'm telling you." He didn't.
At least nobody's vault was opened.