Geraldo Rivera's empty claims

Host: He was wrong about Al Capone's vault, and about Whitewater witness David Hale. But don't hold your breath waiting for retractions.

August 22, 1999|By Herbert London

NEW YORK -- Geraldo Rivera has made a reputation for himself with grand events such as the opening of gangster Al Capone's vault.

The vault turned out to be empty, as have so many of the claims from the TV talk show host. Yet, stories such as these, devoid of factual content, haven't stood in the way of Rivera's rise to television fame.

He commands a salary well into seven figures. His television persona (on display on the CNBC talk show "Rivera Live!") is based on indignation -- over the way President Clinton has been treated, over the O.J. Simpson verdict, over political views he doesn't share.

Last fall, in a put-upon stance of high dudgeon, Rivera promoted the story that Whitewater witness David Hale was paid by Parker Dozhier, an Arkansas consultant to the American Spectator magazine, to make allegations about Clinton's illicit financial arrangements while he was governor.

Rivera went on to accuse a claque of "right-wing Clinton haters," including Richard Mellon Scaife of the Mellon fortune, of suborning Hale and attempting to undermine the presidency.

Overlooked in the accusation made by Rivera (promoting a story from journalists at the New York Observer and the online magazine Salon) is the chastening effect this accusation might have on the American Spectator and its conservative point of view.

After all, Rivera and others in the journalistic world invariably retreat behind the First Amendment whenever their claims don't pan out.

But, apparently, freedom of the press is exercised selectively.

Rivera called for an investigation into the nefarious activities of the "right-wing conspirators." The newsmagazines Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report followed suit. The networks CNN and CBS also jumped on the bandwagon.

With this media pressure, it was only a matter of time before an investigation occurred. The Washington Post reported July 29 that former Justice Department official Michael Shaheen had thoroughly examined the charge and found "many of the allegations of such payments ... unsubstantiated" and "in some cases untrue." He concluded that "no criminal prosecution should be brought."

One might assume that even the shameless Rivera would consider devoting a program to this rebuttal.

One might also assume that the major news outlets that had indicted the American Spectator on the flimsiest hearsay might be willing to recant. But this was not the case. Rivera has moved on to other issues.

But, in the wake of the charges, the First Amendment has been damaged, and the illusion of fair play by the press has been shattered.

What is good for the goose is evidently not good for the gander.

The rule seems to be that liberal views, even if wrongheaded, must be defended, while conservative organizations can be indicted without proof.

This occurred with the open complicity of media giants. Yet, now that the truth is out, the media respond with a deafening silence, as if the charges had not been made. While charges of bias against the press are legion, one rarely finds a case of such unvarnished turpitude.

Suppose it were the other way around. Suppose unsubstantiated allegations had been leveled at, say, editors of the left-wing magazine the Nation. Without a doubt, the New York Times would proclaim that fascism was just around the corner.

But this is the era of the double standard. Rivera's next "empty vault" will no doubt also pass from the scene without a murmur from the press, and he'll get a big raise on his next contract.

Herbert London is John M. Olin professor of humanities at New York University and president of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization.

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