Geraldo and me: The early years

I confess a soft spot for Geraldo Rivera.

I knew him when he was an earnest young journalist, long before he became a pop culture buffoon.

But, in recent days, I’ve seen signs of a righteous Geraldo, pissing on the gun-nut dogma of his Fox News masters.

Right after the bloodbath in San Bernardino, he tweeted:

  • “The 2nd amendment is stupid.”
  • “The NRA is full of shit.”

And he’s kept it up in the days since:

  • “Whether Islamist-racist-anti-abortionist or just anti-civilization – next mass killer’ll come bearing arms, ’cause in USA, gun store never closes.”

On Friday, he engaged in a spat with a crazed judge on the Fox News morning show. She only wanted to talk about terrorist Muslims, suspect Syrian refugees and leftists bent on torching the sacred Second Amendment. Rivera wanted to talk about guns.

“I’m not right or left – I want to keep my kids safe,” the exasperated 72-year-old, gray-haired guest concluded on Fox & Friends.

What most people don’t know is that Rivera was once an activist lawyer for a ’60s militant group, or that his look-at-me media persona is the creation of the Dr. Frankenstein of local TV news.

Al Primo, as the new news director at WABC-TV in New York in 1968, was the evil genius behind the birth of Eyewitness News, the prototype for the ubiquitous “happy talk” combo of news, weather and sports.

Primo was looking for a Puerto Rican to join his cast of reporters constructed to mirror the predominant ethnic cultures of the city.

(The Italian-American contributor, Rose Ann Scamardella, was the inspiration for the Gilda Radner character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, on Saturday Night Live.)

Primo saw clips of Rivera as the lawyer/spokesman for the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers, and had his man: Gerald Rivera, known as Gerry, the son of a Jewish waitress – he was bar mitzvahed – and a Puerto Rican dishwasher.

Primo changed Gerry’s name to Geraldo to emphasize his Latino side and sent his recruit to Columbia for a crash course in journalism.

Rivera and I were both in our first year as reporters in New York – I was with UPI – when we first met at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx in July 1970.

He had the edge on the story since it was his former clients, the Young Lords, who had seized control of the hospital, promising to provide better care than the decrepit facility was offering.

In many ways it was an easy story to cover – the occupiers were congenial hosts, giving reporters a tour of the facility and handing out copies of their plan to improve health services to the mainly Hispanic community.

Neither the city, which ran the hospital, nor the cops outside, seemed overly concerned with the occupation or in any hurry to end it.

After several hours at the scene, I called in my story.

When Geraldo finished his standup and his crew started to pack up, I asked the cameraman for a ride back to Midtown Manhattan.

“Is the kid coming back with us?” he asked the soundman.

“Nah, he’s staying here with his people.”

Geraldo’s crew mocked him all the way to Midtown.

“This kid will never make it,” said the cameraman. “You see how many takes it took to do his standup?”

“Geez,” said the soundman. “Where do they get these kids?”

Rivera proved them wrong, especially with his report in early 1972 on the Willowbrook State School for the mentally retarded on Staten Island, where more than 5,000 boys and young men lived in squalor and endured physical and sexual abuse.

The story was still hot on April 1, when staff staged a wildcat strike, leaving the residents unattended. The state put out an urgent call for volunteers.

I was among about 700 who showed up the next day, Easter Sunday. I decided the best way to cover the story was to join a crew of four young volunteers working on a laundry truck.

I wrote a personal account of my day for UPI – about sorting shit-covered linens; the wretched dimly lighted barracks where one boy put his head on my shoulder and called me “mother.”

Geraldo, who won a Peabody for his Willowbrook piece, had used the power of television to shine a light on this dreadful place, to send us all there on Easter Sunday.

The next time I saw him was on August 9, 1972. For more than a month, I had been covering the trial of Bill Phillips, an NYPD detective charged with killing a pimp and a prostitute.

Just before 11 p.m. on that Wednesday, I returned to the downtown Manhattan courtroom to await the verdict.

TV reporters never seen during a trial showed up, including Geraldo, who had brought a date – his child bride, Edith Vonnegut, Kurt’s daughter.

By this time, he was already a minor celebrity in the city, on his way to becoming a one-name TV star, sacrificing nearly every bit of his journalistic credibility along the way.

But, then again, no working-stiff journalist could tweet: “The NRA is full of shit.”

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