Discovering Geraldo

In the early 70’s when I worked as a reporter and co-anchor at WABC-TV News in NYC, the producers and assignment people were always looking for off-beat stories; the kind CBS and NBC would ignore in favor of “real news” in their dated and staid view of TV journalism.

Our News Director was Al Primo, the father of “Eyewitness News”; a great concept he brought from Philadelphia where he had worked until he was was hired by WABC-TV News in 1969. The concept involved reporters in a new way. We went out on the street, covered stories with a film crew, then came back to the newsroom, wrote and edited the film and later presented the story live (introducing our film package) on the evening or late news. It caught on and is now the accepted formula for TV news everywhere (Note: film was replaced by videotape several years later).

One morning the assignment editor told me to take a crew and drive to East Harlem, where a young group of activists had taken over and abandoned public school that was about to be demolished by the city.

When we arrived at the school we found the property, an entire city block, had been fenced off by the city. We walked around to the gate and there stood a young man dressed in military uniform holding a toy machine-gun. Behind him on the steps of the school stood several more “soldiers” with plastic guns.

I asked the man at the gate what was going on and he told me the school has been “liberated” by some Puerto Rican revolutionary group “in the name of the people”

I asked who was in charge and he said I needed to speak with Commandante Geraldo Rivera, Apparently he was the leader and chief revolutionary. 

I requested an interview with the Commandante and a few “armed” revolutionaries escorted us inside where I filmed the interview with Rivera. He went on about how “the people”, whoever they were, were being oppressed by the city and they were taking over the building until their demands were met. I forget all the details, but long-story-stort, the police ended the whole thing, sending the revolutionaries and the toy guns home. But, the interview and the story did wind up on the evening news and we all laughed about this phony mustachioed Commandante and his army. 

It was all forgotten until a few days later when I came face to face with Commandante Rivera in the newsroom. A coat and tie had replaced his military uniform. He smiled and said, “Hi, Tom”.

Then he explained that Al Primo, the news director, liked the story and he had hired Geraldo to be a reporter for Eyewitness News to handle special features, apparently the Puerto Rican community. Geraldo, it turned out, was a lawyer and a very bright guy who knew how to promote himself. He did very well.