Monday’s installment of “The Five,” on Fox News, was embarked on an approving consideration of the U.S. Border Patrol’s tear-gassing of Central American migrants, women and children among them, who had approached the border fence from Tijuana the day before. Then Geraldo Rivera, hot with feeling, broke in to offer himself as a “designated piñata,” due to receive a rhetorical beating for his contrarian thoughts. “I am ashamed,” he said. “The tear gas choked me. We treat these people, these economic refugees, as if they’re zombies from ‘The Walking Dead’. . . . We suspend our humanity when it comes to this issue, and I fear that it is because they look different than the mainstream.”
The Internet noted this departure from Fox News orthodoxy with an amalgam of confusion and glee. We are familiar with Shepard Smith, the host of “The Fox Report,” who applies the fact-based fig leaves that lend journalistic cover to Fox’s propagandistic suasion. But the sight of such stridency from Geraldo Rivera created a tizzy.
In fact, Geraldo—the flavor of his celebrity demands a first-name basis—is good for a righteous outburst of conscience a few times a year. This is part of his charm—or it would be, if charm were the right word to describe a personality also capable of malignant nonsense, as when, in 2012, he blamed the death of Trayvon Martin on the victim’s hoodie. The whole package—the clumsy insults, the deft outrage, the showmanship at all turns—is essential to Geraldo’s function as “roaming correspondent-at-large for Fox News Channel”: he drops into war zones, mikes up for celebrity interviews, withstands hurricane winds, hosts investigative specials, and, most frequently, appears on set to debate the events of the day, or provide a simulacrum thereof. Ideologically, he is a fantastic gymnast. In June, talking to Sean Hannity as the Trump Administration was separating asylum seekers from their infant children, Geraldo managed to denounce the sin of this “child abuse”—“This is cruelty as policy”—while maintaining his “love” for President Trump.
There is a reliable volatility to Geraldo’s presence, as we ought to expect of a broadcaster whose background suggests an amalgam of Mike Wallace, Jerry Springer, and, let’s say, Paul Lynde, or any other worthy occupant of the center spot on “Hollywood Squares.” Geraldo’s tenures on “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Dancing with the Stars” speak to his legacy and essence as much as his 1972 Peabody Award for “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace,” his WABC investigative report on a Staten Island mental institution. Who else has combined journalistic instincts, sensationalistic impulses, and self-promotional verve with such enduring success? Forged in age of voice-of-God news anchors and Nixon-era muckrakers, he achieved superstardom in the nineteen-eighties, when he hosted “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” and launched a syndicated talk show, titled “Geraldo.” The vaults yielded dry soil and spent liquor bottles; the talk show remains most notorious for a episode from 1988 that descended into a melee, provoked by white supremacists, which led to the fracturing of Geraldo’s nose. It is emblematic of Geraldo’s thing that he gives each of these debacles a position of prominence on his personal Web site.
Not precisely a blowhard, not merely a camera hog, not entirely a slouch, Geraldo is a caricature of a late-twentieth-century news celebrity. He exemplifies the safari-jacketed glamour and showboating hubris of a breed of TV-news star that is now on the verge of extinction. Perhaps he is too grand to be contained by a regular show. Rather, he strides along like a mutant beast of the infotainment age. Turning chemical weapons on impoverished children is wrong, all wrong, he insists, speaking the obvious to power like a showman with a kernel of Cronkite in his heart.