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CNN cues Cooper as Fox goes retro Geraldo

November 04, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Geraldo Rivera, an Old Guard member of the personality-driven news genre, returned with a syndicated show this week on Fox, just as CNN announced another change in its lineup, ushering in more of Anderson Cooper and much less of Aaron Brown.

Make that no Brown, the network saying it simply had no room at the inn for Brown's particular brand of gravitas. Admittedly, Brown could be obtuse and overly sly, not exactly a ratings magnet, but he nevertheless seemed to stand for something other than the high-octane pumping of the day's stories.

But of the three developments, it's Cooper's ascent that feels most inevitable, representing as he does the double-threat of news legitimacy and a pop culture radar. He personifies the push-pull between selling a story, Geraldo-style, and presenting it for your intellectual delectation, Brown-style. Cooper can do both and somehow look both parts; he is 38 but he has gray hair, and down in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina he showed an ability to both feel into the story and actually question posturing officials who gave pat answers.

Yet Rivera, don't forget, was in New Orleans too, representing his extreme tele-journalism, sheer persistence coupled with shameless showbiz.

It has served him through multiple decades as a personality moving up and down in the news business but never quite out, finally. And so he is back, again, and inside of five minutes on the Monday debut of "Geraldo at Large" (in Los Angeles it airs weeknights on Fox at 11 p.m.), Rivera burst forth with a barrage of words such as "terrifying," "awful," "battered," "chaos" and "confusion," to say nothing of the phrases "convicted sex offenders" and "predator hunt."

He was getting right to it, because his name still says it all, like Prince. "We are tracking a terrible threat," he said, standing in a New Orleans neighborhood, a crumbled house behind him. The terrible threat: About 2,000 convicted sex offenders who'd gone unaccounted for in the aftermath of Katrina. "Where did they go?" Rivera intoned. "What are they doing?"

It felt Geraldo-legitimate, which is to say sensationalized and working its way back to the actual. During the "Katrina Predators" story ("At Large" was there when one was tracked down in Texas), Geraldo kicked it back to a Fox News studio in New York for tidbits on drunken Halloween mayhem in Madison, Wis., a jammed roller coaster and a transvestite/transgender beauty pageant in Thailand.

Is it still Geraldo's world and do we still just live in it? There are other honorary mayors now, like Nancy Grace. Still, you have to admire the longevity of his dogged career. "Geraldo at Large" will apparently open with Rivera doing a stand-up at the site of some grim and/or lurid story, a macabre version of "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?" which the "Today" show resurrects beginning Monday.

"Geraldo at Large" is the show that Roger Ailes, the Fox News chief who recently took over control of Fox's syndication arm 20th Television, tapped to replace "A Current Affair," which was itself recalling '80s-style sensationalism about Satanic cults and sex crimes.

Geraldo's been Geraldo for so long the effect of him is becoming quaint; it can even be hard nowadays to work up the energy not to take him seriously. During Katrina, Rivera tearfully brought an African American infant to his face and pleaded for the nation's concern, emerging from New Orleans threatening to sue the New York Times for saying he had "nudged" an Air Force rescuer out of the way so that he himself could be shown helping a woman in a wheelchair to safety.

But even all this seemed like best-of Geraldo Rivera, along with Capone's vault and running afoul of the U.S. military in the early days of the Iraq war for drawing troop movements in the sand.

No, down in New Orleans, it was a younger model, CNN's Cooper, who was winning raves for bringing the scope of the drama home. You could sense Cooper's stock rising every day he stuck it out in the city's 9th Ward, his grim-faced boyishness a better visual witness for the shock of a city falling apart. Such is the double standard Rivera labors under: He helped usher in the era of the reporter-as-story, but he remains a ridiculed poster child of it.

Cooper, by contrast, has a veneer of the new, which apparently helped squeeze out Aaron Brown. The two were teamed up on "NewsNight" in September, the pairing giving the network "fire and ice," CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein reportedly said, apparently a reference to Cooper's exciting immediacy juxtaposed against Brown's less-than-exciting stentorian remove.

CNN's latest revamped lineup gives Cooper "NewsNight" expanded to two hours, from 10 to midnight, with the late-breaking anxiety of Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" rejiggered to 4 to 6 p.m. and again at 7.

Maybe the real difference between Cooper and Brown is that you can't imagine I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby leaking anything to Cooper as you can with Brown, who seems more an initiate of elitism. He's a wry observer of the way things work, rather than a restless traveler hungering to experience the world, which is what Cooper exudes. Brown often wore a smug smile, and he took his time when the camera rolled. He arrived at CNN on 9/11 and left it known in part for a segment at the end of his broadcasts in which he held up the front pages of the next day's newspapers. In today's "This Just In" climate, that almost seemed illegal.

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