Geraldo Rivera sees himself as a renegade, and he has brought that mentality to each of his television stops during his 50 years in broadcasting.
“I think that I helped pioneer a kind of newsgathering that did not exist,” Rivera told TVNewser in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Reporting with a certain swagger, a dynamism, an energy, this street stuff—leading with my microphone, going in there … The New York Times reviewer John O’Connor said back in the day that I was like ‘the Edward R. Murrow of dope coverage.'”
Rivera joined Fox News in November 2001 as a war correspondent covering the war on terror. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and he holds the title of correspondent-at-large. These days, you can find him opining on the current state of politics during Fox News morning and evening programming, beaming in from his home studio in Cleveland.
Before joining Fox News, Rivera was host of CNBC’s Rivera Live, had an eponymous 1990s talk show and hosted the infamous live 1986 special, The Mystery of Al Capone‘s Vaults. In the late-’70s and early ’80s, Rivera was a correspondent on Nightline and 20/20 until Roone Arledge fired him from ABC after he accused Arledge of spiking a colleague’s unflattering story about Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy due to a friendship with the Kennedys.
What the renegade reporter is most proud of, however, is his 1972 Peabody Award-winning reporting about the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island—an institution for the developmentally disabled that was shuttered in 1987. “It was a horrible place: they warehoused people with disabilities the way you would in the worst kennels,” said Rivera. “My proudest achievement was helping to close [those] institutions.”
Fox Nation, FNC’s streaming service, will release the final installment of I Am Geraldo: 50 Years, on Sunday. It will be accompanied by a prime-time special under the same name, airing Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Fox News. Here are highlights from our interview, as Rivera reflected on his 50-year career:
TVNewser: How did you end up at Fox News after 9/11. and what impact did that have on your career?
Rivera: At that time, we had Rivera Live, our show on CNBC at 9 p.m. It was the highest rated show on the network. I was doing great; I loved the show. I was at my house on the beach in Malibu, where I had been living there on and off for a decade. I was there on 9/11 with Erica, who was my girlfriend at the time. I got a call from New York: “Put on the Today show.” We put on the show, and were watching as the second plane hit.
My family was there. I had gotten divorced from my wife and my two girls were there, 6 and 8. The planes hit, and I immediately called home but I couldn’t get through. My children were there in Manhattan, the island of my birth, and it was being attacked. I can’t even describe the frustration and the fear … I thought I should jump in a car to get home; just do anything.
The children were deeply affected by it, but they’re also resilient. I, on the other hand, was smoldering with anger. I said to NBC, “I have to get these sons of bitches. This is horrible. You’ve got to send me to war. We got to get them; we need revenge. They’ll be back. We got to cover this.” NBC just said, “No thanks. We have plenty of war correspondents, you’ve got this No. 1 show.” So, I said, “OK, I quit.” Roger Ailes, who had hired me at CNBC in 1994, then had subsequently gone to Fox and created Fox News, said to me, “I’ll give you a job, but I won’t hire you if they are insisting that you’re under contract.” I was. We negotiated and it took a couple of months to get me out of the deal.
In the middle of November, when I finally get out of the deal, I rushed my brother Craig and [producer] Greg Hart, the same guy who told me about the 9/11 strike, and a team; we rendezvoused in London. I went to work for Fox on Friday, and on the following Monday I was in Pakistan heading to the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan. From there, it was nonstop war reporting: trying to capture [Osama] bin Laden, the country was obsessively interested in it. We didn’t have any GIs there. It was improvisational and running and ducking and getting shot at and doing the best we could to report on what was happening—and the rest is history, as they say.
What are the biggest ways Fox News has changed from when you started there until now?
I think that CNN has changed much more than Fox has changed. My daughter worked at CNN; she was John King’s producer in Washington, D.C. I was a fan of CNN. I thought that was where you go if you don’t want an opinion, or you don’t want one side or the other. You go to CNN and they’re going to have foreign correspondents here or there. If something blows up, they’re going to be there. If some leader says something someplace or something happens, some calamity, or catastrophe, and you can go to CNN. Now, you’re going to put on CNN and 24/7 it’s: “Trump’s a jerk,” or “Trump’s a liar.” I don’t think an hour goes by where they don’t call Trump a liar or a fraud, or worse.
I think that Fox in many ways is more fair than either CNN or MSNBC. I think they bend over backwards, particularly in the non-opinion shows, the newsgathering, they bend over backwards to be “fair and balanced,” was Roger’s old cliché. Yes, Sean [Hannity] is Sean. Tucker [Carlson] is Tucker. Laura Ingraham is Laura Ingraham. On the other hand, Shannon Bream on the later side of that, and Martha McCallum on the early side of that, and the dayside are different. I do think Fox and Friends is also very opinionated, but 80% of Fox is a standard news organization that gives you a fair appraisal of what’s going on in the best possible kind of middle of the road reporting. But it doesn’t get any coverage or any play because the opinion shows are so powerful, and those personalities are so dominant; much more than Chris [Cuomo] or Don Lemon or Lawrence O’Donnell, or even Rachel Maddow now. I think that the Fox News prime-time lineup is a monster.
April 1986, the infamous live opening of Al Capone’s vault, what did you learn from that experience, and looking back on it, what would you do differently?
First of all, I needed the job. I was the most famous unemployed person in America. Actually, when they reached me, I was sailing my boat around the world. I was in the Panama Canal when I got the call from Chicago that they discovered this vault, this gangster’s vault in the Hotel Lexington on the south side of Chicago. They said that I could do a documentary about the mob and then the live coverage is we open the vault. It sounded like a great idea to me. My first question was “How much?” They said, “$25,000.” I told them I needed $50,000. I have a big family, lots of dependents.
They said, “OK.” So, I left the boat in Panama, and my brother Craig [Rivera] took it from there. I went to Chicago and we filmed the vault. We did everything you could reasonably, prudently do to determine that was a vault. That it was hollow; that there was stuff inside; that Al Capone controlled that building during his golden years of operation in Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I was certain that there were guns in there or bones in there or ill-gotten gains in there. I was absolutely sure.
I think what carried the show was my enthusiasm. Everybody took that ride with me and everybody was disappointed with me. Remember, I was unemployed and unemployable in many ways. The morning after that humiliation, I had 22 job offers. Every network, every local station in New York. Entertainment Tonight. You name it, everybody wanted me. I guess the lesson when I look back on it is sometimes you can make lemonade out of lemons. Sometimes you fail. You succeed at failing—and it changed my life. It was the highest-rated special of the year. It reinvigorated my career.
You’re critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of the president. Are there any TV newsers at other networks you feel do a particularly good job of covering this administration?
I think Peter Baker at The New York Times is the best White House correspondent, even though he’s very critical of the president, I think that he’s more fair than any of the others. I think that [CNN host] Fareed Zakaria is pretty good.
There’s just a hatred of the president that seeps into the non-Fox media in a way that is so painfully apparent and so grotesque in its exaggeration, that as a person who has defended the underdog … he’s an underdog. I think that history will come to regard this president as someone who was cruelly treated by partisans, who wanted to sabotage his tenure from the first second it began.
As you’ve made clear, President Trump is a friend of yours and you’ve been largely supportive of his presidency. That said, there are instances where you have been critical of him, particularly immigration policies. He’s down in most of the polls right now. In your opinion, what does he need to do to win this election?
First of all, I think it’s a lot closer than it may appear at this moment, although he is behind in most of the polls. I sense an absolute energy. He is Godzilla. He’s going to be on that debate stage if Joe Biden shows up—it’s going to be Godzilla against a relative lamb. What I would like to see is what I counseled Monday night on Hannity. I’ve advised him of this face to face, that he could be doing a lot more soothing and healing and uniting. I think one of the big reasons that he has refused to drop his guard is because he has been so cruelly mistreated by most of the people in media when he tries to be, not magnanimous, but inclusive. When he tries to be that “shining city on the hill” Reagan-esque figure, he is ridiculed for it. The attitude toward him is malignantly cynical.
I believe that he is trying to do a good job. When you remember pre-plague, the economy was humming along. Black people and brown people and women and Asian people had record low unemployment, and there were economic opportunity zones happening, and there was a judicial reform that he got done. I think he is a much better president that he is given credit for. I believe that the press has been in a kind of mutually assured destruction death match with the president, and the president, because he is famously tempestuous and thin skinned, feeds into it.
50 years is a long time to be on television. Are you thinking about retirement, or do you plan on working as long as you can?
I’ll tell you what just happened. We just filmed the wraps for the special we’re doing Sunday night at 10 p.m. on the 50 years. And as I signed off, I had a flash. I thought to myself: “Why don’t I just sign off and say, ‘Thanks for the memories.’” Then, walk off the way Jack Parr did.
But I love it. I love the engagement. It’s so easy. I live in a big house in Cleveland. I have a TV studio downstairs. I do my radio show upstairs in the room I’m in now. I have nice friends—worldly, Black and white and it’s nice. Less wear and tear than I’ve ever had before. And it’s certainly a lot a lot easier on the old body than Afghanistan was, that’s for sure.
I’ll work until I drop and then they’ll just shovel me off. Fox actually just extended my contract. I have no plans to retire.