Geraldo Rivera, Master of Monicagate

“If my life and work experience has yielded anything,” Geraldo Rivera said with characteristic humility, “it is the creation of a very effective bullshit meter. What I bring to the story that many of my colleagues do not is lack of pretense.”

Mr. Rivera, NBC’s Clinton-Lewinsky scandal star and the company’s problem child, was issuing another in a series of bigheaded pronouncements that have recently threatened his rehabilitated image. For a while, it seemed like Good Geraldo was winning out. The buttoned-down, bespectacled host of CNBC’s Rivera Live enjoys a 26 percent ratings increase over last year. In December, he signed a six-year contract, worth between $24 million and $36 million, elevating him to the status of a full-fledged NBC News correspondent and scoring him a new gig as legal analyst on the Today Show , as well as a deal to produce four prime-time news specials a year on his own. And on top of all that, he has a new CNBC news show in the works, Upfront Tonight , which he says will “take some of the casual style of cable and marry it to the more traditional discipline of a network newscast,” and, he hopes, give rise to a “new form” of evening news.

But no sooner had Good Geraldo established a foothold back at the network than the all-too-familiar specter of Bad Geraldo reappeared. You remember Bad Geraldo–the tabloid show clown who had fat from his butt injected into his forehead on live television and had his nose broken by chair-flinging Nazi skinheads?

During a July 28 Today Show appearance, Mr. Rivera got into a shouting match with conservative pundette Laura Ingraham. Today host Katie Couric snapped at him on the air, and Mr. Rivera got a call later from the show’s producer, Jeff Zucker, telling him to behave. A few days later, Mr. Rivera reported on his show that “a source close to the President” had informed him that “there is human genetic material” on Ms. Lewinsky’s notorious blue dress. What Mr. Rivera called a “bombshell” was deemed a dud by his colleagues at NBC News; a company-wide electronic message warned reporters not to go with Mr. Rivera’s scoop.

The company flacks were still dealing with that one when Mr. Rivera stepped in it again, telling TV Guide that he was gunning for “the center chair at the desk of the wise men,” a seat at NBC that is currently occupied by Tom Brokaw. Mr. Rivera complained bitterly that Mr. Brokaw was unsupportive, saying: “I hope that if I hang out long enough and if I’m quiet enough, it will evolve into a more collegial kind of relationship. But I don’t expect it.” A day after those comments were publicized, Mr. Rivera had to issue a statement, this time saying, “Tom Brokaw is a great newsman who does a terrific job and the rivalry between us is grossly overstated.”

Mr. Brokaw’s allies were not appeased. “He’s a tabloid host,” said a close associate of Mr. Brokaw’s. “He’s not a journalist, as such. He just rants on and on … It’s a problem for [NBC president] Bob Wright and NBC.”

“I think that’s a cheap shot,” said Ed Rollins, a Rivera Live regular. “He’s played every element of the game. Whether news guys want to admit it or not, it’s all about entertaining and who can attract viewers. The news is a vehicle.”

“No one has acted as a style policeman,” Mr. Rivera told Off the Record in a faxed response to questions. (His comments now are being screened by a CNBC publicist.) “I did have the call from Jeff Zucker … Everything Jeff said was taken with an open mind and, I hasten to add, Jeff was right. The Today Show is his show and Rivera Live is my show.”

But, Mr. Rivera insisted, “They haven’t tried to change me or give me a makeover.”

Therein lies NBC’s Geraldo problem. Every disaster, war and Presidential scandal tends to shove a particular TV news personality into the limelight. Dan Rather solidified his place in the public’s collective TV memory as Richard Nixon’s chief media nemesis during Watergate. And no matter how tainted his reputation may be after the recently discredited Time -CNN news report about the United States Army using nerve gas on defectors during the Vietnam War, Peter Arnett achieved media star status covering the Gulf War in 1991 as bombs fell on Baghdad.

Now, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, with one foot planted firmly in the White House and the other in the gutter, has snatched Geraldo Rivera out of the realm of tabloid trash TV and placed him in the upper echelons of the network news establishment. And those guys can’t stand him.

Here’s why. On a recent episode of Rivera Live , Mr. Rivera had, as usual, worked himself into his nightly frenzy over his sworn enemy, independent counsel Kenneth Starr. He posed this question to his guests: What would happen if President Clinton delivered a mea culpa to the American people and in return implored them “to stop this man from biting me on the ass”?

The guests–former Reagan Administration adviser Ed Rollins, former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Meyers, NBC correspondent David Gregory and Larry Klayman of the ultraconservative legal group Judicial Watch–fervently debated the question, as Mr. Rivera, in the role of conductor, kept time. He alternately goaded his guests, then cut them off; mocked them into silence, then incited them to cacophony.

“To hire … Harry and Susan Bloodworth-Thomason, [the Clintons] fired the travel office – ” said Mr. Klayman.

“They didn’t fire the travel office, Larry,” Ms. Meyers interrupted.

“They fired you , Dee Dee,” Mr. Klayman retorted. When the comment fell flat, Mr. Klayman looked to the maestro for guidance. But Mr. Rivera, savoring the blue note, said nothing. After a tense moment of silence, Ms. Meyers said, “Oh, you’re a big man there, Larry.”

“I’m just joking,” Mr. Klayman sheepishly muttered. “You can take a joke.”

“You’re kind of a joke, actually,” Ms. Meyers said.

Mr. Rivera had found his CNBC moment–not news, but a kind of news-related drama. Soon enough, the host kissed his fingertips and blew a peace sign to the television audience, a nightly gesture of farewell that surely makes Tom Brokaw’s skin crawl. The evening’s performance was over.

If history conspired to make a laughingstock of Mr. Rivera during the live opening of Al Capone’s secret vault in 1986, it has come to his rescue in the form of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Mr. Rivera possesses a peculiar mix of high and low, of smarts and crassness, that seems particularly suited to the political carnival. Indeed, the story has all the elements of the confrontational, often salacious brand of television Mr. Rivera pioneered; depending on one’s point of view, the current long-playing episode would be titled, “I Had an Affair With My Boss,” “My Best Friend Betrayed Me to the Authorities,” or maybe “Government Zealots Ruined My Life.”

Instead of baiting lowlifes and hatemongers on his show, as he once did, Mr. Rivera now baits law professors and political consultants who are much more likely to hurl bons mots than chairs. But between Geraldo and the journalistic promised land lies a formidable obstacle: opposition from NBC News producers who fear that Mr. Rivera will demean the network.

Mr. Rivera’s problems with NBC News date back to fall 1997, when he nearly left the company to join former CNBC president Roger Ailes at the Fox News Network. Mr. Rivera had decided to leave when NBC president Robert Wright and NBC News president Andrew Lack got him to stay by offering him the solicitous contract.

Mr. Rivera gave up his $5-million-a-year tabloid show, Geraldo , and recommitted himself to CNBC. Mr. Rivera’s newly elevated status did not endear him to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who sought and received assurances from Mr. Lack that Mr. Rivera would not be a part of Mr. Brokaw’s Nightly News . Mr. Rivera’s role as NBC News outsider was underscored on May 8 when Today Show host Matt Lauer introduced him to viewers with this chilly welcome: “Over the years, Geraldo Rivera has been called a lot of things, among them, the father of trash television.” To which, Katie Couric, a friend of Mr. Rivera’s, deadpanned, “Yeah, that’s his favorite.”

Mr. Ailes, who is responsible for installing Mr. Rivera at CNBC in the early 90’s, wasted no time decoding the NBC News division’s response to Mr. Rivera’s arrival. “They did something they didn’t believe in,” he said, referring to NBC’s new contract with Mr. Rivera. “And when you do something you don’t believe in, you screw up. They hate him … They gave him the money, but they didn’t give him the respect.”

“Fox tried and failed to sign Geraldo and failure is often followed by sour grapes,” an NBC spokesman responded.

Mr. Rivera hit the mother lode when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke. Quickly asserting himself as a staunch critic of Mr. Starr’s, Mr. Rivera provided a perfect counterpoint to Chris Matthews, the conservative host of the Washington D.C.-based Hardball , which precedes Rivera Live on CNBC. In the absence of fresh news on the scandal, Mr. Rivera took a cue from the Sunday morning news talk shows, publicizing his guests’ more outrageous comments. That led to a bizarre phenomenon of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal: Opinions have become news. A show like Upfront Tonight , which debuts on Aug. 24, will combine news with Rivera Live -style Op-Ed television and might be the perfectly efficient perpetual news machine; a single atom of hard news could generate 90 minutes of heat for Mr. Rivera.

That’s an unsettling concept to Mr. Rivera’s colleagues at NBC News, and he made himself an easy target for their criticism when he chose Diane Dimond, a former reporter for Extra and Hard Copy , as his co-host for Upfront .

“We don’t get it,” one NBC News producer told Off the Record. “If you want to be a grown-up, why are you hiring her?”

Mr. Rivera responded by calling Ms. Dimond “one of the most aggressive and professional investigative reporters I know.”

Asked about the criticism from his cohorts at NBC News, Mr. Rivera said, “I don’t believe for a second there’s a Rivera News and there’s NBC News. I just don’t buy that. Factual reporting is factual reporting. Stylistically, there are differences from one correspondent to the next … If you watch MSNBC or CNBC, the on-air personalities tend to be more personalities, but that’s a function, I believe, of much more relaxed time realities … That doesn’t reduce the need to be accurate. That doesn’t reduce the stakes if you’re wrong.”

Much of the dislike of Mr. Rivera among NBC News staff members may stem from the simple fact that he works at CNBC. Although NBC has done a fairly remarkable job integrating its three channels–NBC, CNBC and MSNBC–by sharing staff and programming, many producers for the individual channels view each other as threats. When told of the NBC News producer’s comments about Ms. Dimond, one CNBC producer scoffed, “Sorry, but they do Dateline .” What other NBC News correspondent besides Mr. Rivera, the producer asked, is working on a news special about the relations between African-Americans and the police?

The biggest loser from Mr. Rivera’s ascent may be within his own network. Equal Time , the show co-hosted by Bay Buchanan, is being canceled to make room for Mr. Rivera’s new show, despite substantial improvement in its ratings during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. And some CNBC staff members say a turf war is already under way between bookers and producers for Mr. Rivera’s new show and Rivera Live , with each vying for their host’s attention.

The battle might be short-lived, if the Presidential scandal resolves itself in the coming months; CNBC could have an opinion-generating juggernaut on its hands, and little to comment on. But Mr. Rivera isn’t worried.

“The one thing I’ve found out is that the world is an infinitely varied place,” he said. “There’s always another story … Something always happens.”

You can reach Off the Record by e-mail at wstjohn@observer.com.

Geraldo Rivera, Master of Monicagate