As far as his critics were concerned, it was the week that shouldn’t have been for the P.T. Barnum of talk show hosts, Geraldo Rivera. First his two-hour NBC special on satanism was trashed by reviewers (though watched by a huge national audience); then, in living, bloody color—his own—he was assaulted by a chair-wielding young racist who sprang from the audience of his syndicated talk show Geraldo! The result was a broken nose for Rivera, an outlandish free-for-all on the set of his show and another dose of the ratings medicine that Geraldo likes best.
All in all, it was a trade-off Rivera seemed pleased to accept. After he had undergone a three-hour reconstructive surgery procedure to set his broken nose, he said he had no regrets about the on-camera brawl. “I didn’t perceive that program as confrontainment [a hybridization of confrontation and entertainment]—that’s the new word I see around,” he said. “I saw it as a chance to expose to the American people the lies of racist Nazi thugs. I think it’s important for us to maintain the role of people who turn the lights on the cockroaches as they scurry.”
But cockroaches are not always edifying to watch, and neither, said critics, was the Geraldo! segment titled “Young Hate Mongers,” which was to be broadcast across the nation last Friday. For Rivera, the showman, the debacle began as a stunt like any other: He had presided over a carefully mismatched panel whose members included a white supremacist; the head of a neo-Nazi youth group; Roy Innis, the quick-tempered chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality; and a rabbi. The audience included a supporting cast of thick-knuckled skinhead sympathizers and a couple who had been assaulted by young racists in a New York underground rail station. On the off-chance that feelings might run high, the show’s producers had arranged for spectators to be frisked beforehand and for 10 security guards to be posted just outside camera range.
The panel’s extremists did not disappoint: Thirty-eight minutes into the taping, John Metzger, head of an organization known as White Aryan Resistance Youth, injudiciously called Innis an Uncle Tom. Innis, who had been involved in a dustup with the Rev. Al Sharpton on another talk show only months before, jumped up and began choking Metzger. At that point, skinheads from the audience rushed the stage. Hit by a chair, Rivera plunged into the fray. Audience members fell on each other and on the panelists, hurling chairs, punches and epithets.
While many observers saw the episode as an embarrassment, the producers of Geraldo! saw a bonanza. Only two hours after the cessation of hostilities, an NBC affiliate in New York was running a tantalizing clip of raw battle footage. The next day’s tabloids were full of the event, and Geraldo, who bravely wrapped one more program segment before leaving to nurse his wounds, found himself in a familiar role—that of whipping boy for media critics. Geraldo’s feelings did not seem to be injured. His ballyhooed prime-time special on devil worship—a program that “plumbed uncharted depths in…teleporn,” in the view of one critic—had become one of the highest rated documentaries in the history of network television, and now Geraldo! would be reaching for big numbers too. If Rivera has earned a reputation as “the Jerry Lewis of investigative journalists”—as the Washington Post’s Tom Shales puts it—it is because he seems to have no fear of looking foolish. Geraldo! regularly offers segments on such risqué topics as phone-sex services and female impersonators, topics at the low end of the Donahue spectrum, and its namesake host sees no need to apologize.
If Rivera’s most recent appearances have seemed to provide more performance art than reportage, he is unlikely to pull back from his provocative style. He perceives his broken nose, and his bad reviews too, as hazards of his special calling. “I’m just not the image of the national television reporter that [critics] are comfortable with,” he says. “I don’t wear a trench coat and I don’t have a name that comes from the Pilgrim landing-ship family.” Not only is he unrepentant about the Geraldo! melee, he is enthusiastically planning a follow-up. All who were in the studio audience on the day of the brawl will be asked to reconvene at the end of the month to witness a debate between leaders of black, Jewish and civil-rights organizations. The topic, he says, will be “How useful is it to expose these neo-Nazis?” The answer, as always, will be in the ratings.
—Michelle Green, and Gavin Moses in New York