Four decades in the news business. If I may say, that is an incredible run in a dynamic, exotic, wonderful, often important but frequently stressful and sometimes dangerous business that tends to wear out people more quickly.
There aren’t many still standing who started in that tumultuous period during which the civil rights movement had collapsed into urban chaos; the endless war in Vietnam was tearing the nation apart; Richard Nixon was president, and the deaths of four students at Kent State University at the hands of Ohio National Guardsmen was accelerating the alienation of young people across the country and self-styled rebels like me who weren’t trusting anyone over thirty.
On television then, and longer than most Americans have been alive, my entire adult life has played out in plain view. Audiences have watched me experience high and low drama, marriages, children born, divorces, re-marriages, etc.; on-air triumphs like the decades-long campaign to humanize the care and treatment of the developmentally disabled, and not-such-triumphs like getting my nose broken and opening Al Capone’s empty vault.
It is also possible to track the nation’s pop cultural history by checking out my riotously funny hair and fashion choices over the decades.
The ironic thing is that I never planned a career as a journalist. In early 1970, as a long-haired, semi-hippie, storefront lawyer working mostly with poor clients being harassed by slumlords or being denied access to health care, I also represented a Puerto Rican activist group, the Young Lords. -- They were the first to emphasize the desperate social and economic needs of the stateside Puerto Rican community, rather than protesting the island’s colonial status.
The Lords dominated local New York City news in early 1970 by seizing a church in Spanish Harlem. The congregation had largely moved out to the suburbs, the building was empty during the week and the Lords did what many similar radical groups of that era did, they seized the building and re-opened it as an ad hoc community service center dispensing free breakfasts to neighborhood children and offering them free testing for lead paint-poisoning, a big problem back in the day.
As their spokesman, I appeared on "The Today Show," got spotted by a TV executive, sent to a special summer program at Columbia University, and on Labor Day 1970 began my long and winding reporter’s journey.
I enjoy saying that I’ve out-lived fifteen or twenty generations of television critics who predicted my imminent career collapse, but while longevity is its own revenge, more importantly landmark occasions like this one bring reflection on what’s been accomplished. Rather than me trying to put myself in an historic context on the occasion of my 40th anniversary in the news business I have put together a list of 100 things even loyal viewers probably didn’t know about me, especially if you only read The New York Times or get biographies from Wikipedia. Forgive the third person, but here are half of those landmarks and dubious distinctions:
1. Only person ever to appear on the covers of both Newsweek and Playgirl.
2. Multi-winner, "America’s Best Mustache"
3. Like Oprah, Elvis, Cher and Lassie, one of America’s few one-name celebrities.
4. More on-air fights than most professional middle-weights (tape available).
5. Debuts Eyewitness News; first assignment: a brief interview with losing Democratic candidate for state attorney general. Sound bite airs, but hand holding mike is only body part that appears; mother Lillian Friedman Rivera recognizes Jewish star tattoo on son’s left-hand; proudly proclaims he has "made it." Parents forgive leaving legal profession; embrace career in public life; (September 7, 1970 to present).
7. Winner of the first of two Columbia-DuPont silver batons, "Drug Crisis in East Harlem." (Notably, first time dealers and addicts ever shown injecting hard drugs and interviewed full-face on television news); (1971).
8. Meets John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York’s Greenwich Village, begins friendship that lasts until John’s assassination. (1971-1980).
9. "Willowbrook, the Last Great Disgrace' jumpstarts decade of profound change in care and attitudes toward developmentally disabled across the country and around the world. Emmy and George Foster Peabody Broadcasting award-winner becomes highest-rated locally produced documentary ever; (1972).
10. Hosts local "VD Blues" featuring frank questions asked and answered for the first time on broadcast television, example, “Can you catch VD from a toilet seat?” (1972).
11. Meets Frank Sinatra, Elvis and former "Mike Douglas Show" producer/political genius Roger Ailes; (1972-1977).
12. "The Littlest Junkie" airs. Emmy-award winning documentary probes neo-natal addiction, surpasses "Willowbrook" to become highest-rated locally produced TV news documentary ever; (1973).
13. First overseas assignment (with ABC News colleague Charlie Murphy) confronts Augustín Pínochet, Chilean dictator who just overthrew Salvador Allende who was killed in the coup; (1973).
14. Covers virtually every armed conflict and drug interdiction effort on planet; Mid-East, Africa, Golden Crescent, Golden Triangle, Pacific Rim, Central and South America; (1973-present).
15. "Good Night America," “a second generation TV newsmagazine” debuts; hip, pop cultural late night television in era before SNL, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert or Letterman; first guest, hero Cesar Chavez; (1973-1977).
17. 'Migrants Dirt Cheap" wins Robert F. Kennedy award (first of three), Emmy, other awards; (1974).
18. Smokes pot on camera in legal setting; after tease airs ABC censors piece; (1974).
19- ‘GNA’ airs infamous Abraham Zapruder home-movie of John F. Kennedy assassination: broadcast for the first time, program ignites ‘Second Gunman’ controversy, which still persists today; (1975).
20. With Norman Mailer, sculptor Isami Noguchi and actress Gloria Swanson testifies for John Lennon in Nixon Justice Department initiated deportation case. Referencing money raised at ‘One-to-One’, says John “liberated at least sixty retarded children from the pits of hell.” John cleared case dropped; (1971-76).
22. "The Geraldo Rivera Children’s Residence" opens in Queens, New York; first of many similar residences overcomes initial neighborhood resistance, motto: “This House Is Now a Home;” mission: “to facilitate an independent and productive life experience for individuals with developmental disabilities including mental retardation and autism;” (1977).
23. "20/20" debuts. Geraldo member of inaugural cast; (1978-1985).
24. "The Elvis Cover-up" bruising expose of King of Rock and Roll’s decline into drug abuse, addiction and overdose death becomes "20/20’s" highest rated program with 43% of the total network audience; (1978).Program helps establish newsmagazine; ratings record stands for 21 years until Barbara Walters’ exclusive with Clinton intern Monica Lewinsky; (1999).
25. Profiles Grateful Dead; guitarist Jerry Garcia later writes he secretly dosed correspondent with LSD; picture available; (1981).
26. First network news examination of AIDS crisis "Geraldo Rivera began reporting on AIDS at a time when other media hardly mentioned it…” (says Lynn Sherr on "20/20’s" 10th anniversary show) (1983).
27. After 15 years, scores of high-profile reports, including secret crossing of the Mekong River into Vietnam-occupied Cambodia and Laos (1979) fired by news boss Roone Arledge; precipitating cause: his public criticism of Roone’s decision to spike report alleging romantic relationship between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy brothers; (1985).
28. Highest profile unemployed American and family set out to sail around the world; transiting Panama Canal, hired via telegram to open recently discovered Chicago vaults of gangster Al Capone. Hugely ridiculed, special was and remains the highest rated syndicated TV special in history. (1986).
29. Round-the-world cruise abandoned signs long-term deal with Chicago’s Tribune Company. Partnership produces several more highly rated live two-hour programs including "American Vice" and "Live from Death Row" which features definitive jailhouse confrontation with Charles Manson, who threatens to kill correspondent, who returns the compliment; (1986-1988).
30. "Geraldo!" (Later, ‘The Geraldo Rivera Show’) debuts and begins an eleven year run; over 2,000 episodes air; (1987-1998).
31. Notorious skin-head brawl breaks ratings records and host’s nose; (1988).
32. "Adopts" entire class, 27 eighth graders at Rafael Cordero Bilingual School at East Harlem JHS 45; agrees to put all through college if they graduate high school. Ultimately eleven do, including one from medical school; (1988-2005).
33. Dubbed in Russian, "Geraldo" becomes first ever American talk show to air in the USSR. Chicago Tribune headline, "'Geraldo' goes to Moscow. Are the Soviets ready for topless doughnut shops? Stay tuned." (1991)
34. Arrested in Janesville, Wisconsin brawl with neo-Nazis. After bail release, on the connecting flight to Chicago sits next to former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who criticizes his decision to lead with right; (1992).
35. Guest stars on "Baywatch" as Alfred "the Nerd," Season 5, Episode 9, the series highest rated ever; (1994).
36. Defying resistance from entrenched NBC executives and anchors, trailblazing CNBC president Roger Ailes hires to host "Rivera Live" (1994-2001).
37. O.J. Simpson flees in white Bronco after murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. "Rivera Live" becomes nation’s go-to program, network’s highest rated (1994-2001).
38. Paula Jones files lawsuit, impeachment proceedings begin against President Bill Clinton; "Rivera Live" becomes 42nd president’s prime and prime-time defender, dominating cable ratings; (1998-1999).
39. On board Voyager, vintage sailing ketch, resumes round world journey, setting out from Marion, Massachusetts across Atlantic, Mediterranean, through Suez Canal, Gulf of Aqaba, Persian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz, Seychelles, Maldives, Indian Ocean, Thailand, Singapore, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Ocean, Tahiti, Galapagos, Ecuador, Panama Canal; (1997-2000).
40. Appears as himself in the "Seinfeld Finale" (1998).
41. Rivera family among first to celebrate millennium on Voyager on the International Dateline in the Pacific island nation of Tonga (2000).
42. After billionaire Michael Bloomberg enters race, and receiving ridicule by Jay Leno among others, abandons long-cherished plan to run for mayor of New York; (2000).
43. Walks away from four years remaining on six-year $30 million contract with NBC News when network refuses to send him as a war correspondent to Afghanistan following 9/11 attacks. Hired again by Roger Ailes, who created soon to be dominant Fox News Channel; immediately assigned to Afghanistan; (November 2001).
44. Fox News surpasses long-time rating leader CNN; (December 2001). As war correspondent and host of "Geraldo at Large," spends long months on the road at home and abroad, covering hurricanes, natural disasters, (Katrina, Rita), including Afghan War (seven times), Somalia, the Sudan, and Iraq; (nine times); (2001-present).
45. Weds Erica Michelle Levy after three year courtship, fifth and final wife (2003-forever); Sol Liliana Rivera, darling fifth (and final) child is born; (2005). The other beloveds, Gabriel Miguel (31), Cruz Grant (22), Isabella Holmes (17) and Simone Cruickshank (16);
46. Confronts false New York Times report alleging he inserted himself in Hurricane Katrina rescues; calls columnist Alessandra Stanley “Jason Blair in a cocktail dress;” a reference to disgraced NYT reporter fired for falsifying reports. Times grudgingly retracts/corrects story about Rivera; (2005).
47. On the eve of his trial for child molestation, embattled entertainer Michael Jackson grants Rivera rare sit-down interview; In face of near universal condemnation and predictions of conviction, the lawyer/reporter certain ‘King of Pop’ will be acquitted vows to shave mustache if wrong; Mustache survives; (2005).
48. Appears as himself in "Sopranos" final season; (2007).
49. Impassioned debate with anchor Bill O’Reilly, advocates unpopular, but humane alternative to enforcement-only immigration policy; (2007).
50. Confronts New Black Panther Party leader live; (2010).
Aside from my family, what has sustained me over the last four decades is consistent support from the audience. Through thick and thin, you have stayed with me; not always approving, but when in doubt, giving me the benefit of the doubt. For that my family and I are eternally grateful.