America’s king of trash TV investigates the killing of America and goes toe-to-toe with Charles Manson in a notorious 1988 TV special.
Geraldo Rivera was, during the late 1980s, the king of tabloid TV, hosting an inflammatory talk show of the most sensationalist sort, up there with Jerry Springer in terms of deliberate provocation and attention-grabbing bullshit; unlike Springer though, Rivera seemed to take it all very seriously and adopted an air of righteous indignation that fooled no one. It was quite the comedown for a man one been a pioneering and hard-hitting journalist, but I guess money and fame helps to compensate for any loss of credibility.
As well as his regular shows, Rivera would host occasional specials, two-hour shows that dug into sensationalist stories. These were less concerned with finding the truth as they were in pandering to the worst beliefs of a conservative audience. Things started badly with a widely-publicised show, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, where the live two-hour special wound up discovering that said vaults contained nothing but dirt – not exactly a mystery, and hardly the sort of pay off that viewers had been led to expect. Perhaps learning from this, Rivera made sure that his other specials were more immediately shocking. His most infamous show was the 1988 special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground, which featured a confused Ozzy Osbourne mixed with wild Satanic Panic accusations and poor Zeena Schreck having to somehow try to battle against the relentlessly hysterical nonsense in her position of then-spokesperson for The Church of Satan. It’s quite the show.
Less well-known – at least in the whole – is another 1988 special, Murder: Live from Death Row, in which Rivera brings his brand of sledgehammer reporting and single-minded ideas of guilt and innocence (always the former, never the latter) to the issue of ‘America’s murder epidemic’. The show was simply the excuse on which to hang Rivera’s real exclusive, an interview with Charles Manson. Opinions may vary over who comes across best in this encounter, though as usual, Manson is playing the role that is required of him. On Manson’s death, Rivera dismissed him as a “snake-oil salesman”, which some might think is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Tommy Arthur, featured here, sat on death row for 35 years before being executed in 2017, despite major doubts about his guilt. Don’t expect much insight into a system that allows such things to happen in this show; in fact, don’t expect much insight at all in this poor man’s Killing of America. But the Manson interview is, of course, fascinating and as a time capsule of the morally bankrupt and shamelessly crass TV of the 1980s (as opposed to the morally bankrupt and crass TV of today), it has a car-crash fascination.
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