Geraldo draws fire, figuratively

Does his posturing increase the danger to other journalists in a perilous place?

Geraldo Rivera went to war citing his many acts of courage in the face of danger. But has his chest-thumping style of journalism brought greater danger to his colleagues?

Some say the bombastic newsman's revelation that he's armed and his prior remark that, if he caught up with Osama bin Laden, he'd "kick his head in, then bring it home and bronze it" bring greater danger for journalists in a conflict where eight journalists have already been killed.

"We've had journalists detained and accused of being spies by the Taliban," says Joel Simon, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We argue that they're not spies, they're journalists. Once a journalist says he would harm one of the adversaries in this conflict, he's saying he's potentially going to shift roles and become a participant in this conflict. It makes it harder to make the argument that a journalist is an observer and not representing his government."

Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, agrees. "A journalist is a journalist, not a combatant. If any side in a conflict begins to view journalists as armed combatants, that makes our job that much harder in an already difficult situation. ... He needs to think more about doing some good, solid reporting than posturing himself as some sort of special operative."

One veteran-journalist-turned-academic, who did not want his name used, called Rivera's remarks "outrageous. It puts everyone else in jeopardy."

Rivera could not be reached, and Fox News did not respond to questions. But Rivera, in an Associated Press story questioning whether being armed puts other journalists at risk, said the issue is "complete bull" and "makes me ill."

Rivera came to this war with a fanfare unmatched by any soldier or journalist—even CBS's Dan Rather. From his initial inclinations toward covering the war up close to his exit from CNBC to his joining Fox and traveling to the war zone, Rivera's moves have been scrutinized through his own reports and those of other journalists.

It was in a print interview accompanying his network switch that Rivera made the remark about kicking bin Laden's head in. The widely circulated comment was in response to a question from Philadelphia Inquirer
columnist Gail Shister.

"He was answering a provocative, semi-serious question with a provocative, semi-serious answer," says Shister, who has known Rivera more than 20 years. "He's a colorful guy, a walking headline. That's part of his charm."

In the same column, Rivera discussed his family legacy of courage, his qualifications to cover the war, his pay cut, his physical condition, and the size of his waist and chest.

Since entering the war zone, Rivera has made headlines on Fox itself when he was nearly hit by a bullet. A Wall Street Journal
columnist even suggested that Rivera's dropping to the ground while under fire might have been a staged event because it "seemed just too convenient."

The intense focus on Rivera apparently rankles him. In a Baltimore Sun
article that cited errors in Rivera's reporting, Rivera spoke of himself in the third person. "It's time to stop bashing Geraldo.
If you want to knife me in the back after all the courage I've displayed and serious reporting I've done, I've got no patience with this (expletive)."

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, was sympathetic to any journalist's decision to carry a weapon, "but it's not in his or his colleagues' best interest to make a public announcement about it. The culture of being a foreign correspondent is more like Gary Cooper: to demonstrate courage, not talk about it."

That his gun-toting revelation came in response to a question is no excuse, Jones says. "It was a question from [Fox News'] own anchor, a put-up job if I've ever seen one."

Yet Jones adds that, "while it was a foolish thing for him to say, journalists are already on the bull's-eye over there. If the Taliban gets hold of you, they're apt to execute you. We shouldn't be naïve. This is a sophisticated, bloodthirsty bunch."