December 19, 2001
Reality TV? Not when Geraldo is on the case
He said he was at Kandahar; he wasn't
WASHINGTON - Geraldo Rivera, Fox News's pistol-packing war correspondent, is in trouble over apparently faking a report from Afghanistan.
Mr. Rivera claimed in a Dec. 6 dispatch to be reporting from "hallowed ground" where, the day before, a U.S. B-52 bomber had mistakenly killed three Army Green Berets and several allied Afghans and wounded 20 Americans.
An emotional Mr. Rivera said he had recited the Lord's Prayer over the site, where "friendly fire took so many of our, our men and the mujahedeen yesterday."
The only problem, as The Baltimore Sun discovered, was that Mr. Rivera was actually hundreds of kilometres away from the site near Kandahar on Dec. 6.
What's more, Mr. Rivera's explanation for the mistake does not add up.
A chastened Mr. Rivera told the paper he had confused the Kandahar deaths with another "friendly fire" incident that had killed several Afghans near Tora Bora, blaming the "fog of war."
Only one small problem with that explanation. According to the Pentagon, the Tora Bora incident happened three days after Mr. Rivera filed his report.
So far Fox News is not commenting on Mr. Rivera's problems. One spokesman hung up on The Sun, complaining the paper had a vendetta against Fox News.
The fuss has done little to bolster Mr. Rivera's reputation, or Fox's claim to be "The Network America Trusts." "To pretend you're in a location when you're not, that's a firing offence in a normal outfit," said Suanne Kelman, director of broadcast journalism at Toronto's Ryerson University. "You've just lost your credibility with your audience. There is no reason after that for anyone to believe anything you say."
Mr. Rivera is still on the air, reporting from Tora Bora yesterday as he scampered through abandoned al-Qaeda caves while wearing an Afghan pakul hat.
"Heavy winds hit Geraldo's camp as he explores abandoned caves once occupied by al-Qaeda forces," Fox News trumpeted.
It was a fairly typical report from Mr. Rivera, who has driven the "journalist in jeopardy" format to new heights while in Afghanistan.
"Watch a blow-by-blow report as Geraldo gets caught in the crossfire at Tora Bora" and "Geraldo Rivera takes a rocky ride as he searches for Bin Laden's rat nest" are two recent story blurbs on Fox.
Mr. Rivera abandoned his US-million a year job as a talk show host on the CNBC business channel to jump to Fox -- and took a 25% pay cut -- for his chance to report on the war.
He waded into controversy as soon as he got to Central Asia. Mr. Rivera, 58, already protected by five Afghans toting machine guns, announced he was packing personal heat to defend himself and said if he ever crossed paths with bin Laden he would relish the chance to "take him out."
That admission earned more cries of horror from journalism ethicists. Under the Geneva Convention, reporters are not supposed to carry weapons into war zones because soldiers could mistake them for combatants. In a conflict where eight reporters have already died, Mr. Rivera's antics are not appreciated.
"It's an incredibly stupid thing to say. It's putting himself and other journalists at risk," Ms. Kelman said. "Journalists are not supposed to be engaging in combat, they are supposed to be covering combat."
But criticism has never dimmed the famously brash Mr. Rivera's enthusiasm for the job.
He gained his greatest infamy as a daytime talk show host, once getting his nose broken after a white supremacist banged a chair into his face. He had fat sucked out of his buttocks and injected into his forehead in a show on plastic surgery, and served up fare such as "Men in lace panties and the women who love them."
He was also responsible for the opening of Al Capone's supposed vault in Chicago (it contained only dirt), but he also has serious journalistic credentials.
He broke a 1972 story on the abuse of mentally disabled children in New York, has won many awards for his television work and has reported on several wars, something that he underlined in his usual fashion in a recent interview.
"I think, arguably, I am the most experienced war correspondent in America today," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
And his ability to work in Afghanistan? "I'm very fit. I still box. I don't smoke. I'd like to find a reporter who can outdistance me," he said. "I have a 31-inch waist, a 42-inch chest. I'm a real butch. ... Courage has never been my problem. Brave men run in my family."