The day after three American servicemen and several Afghan opposition troops were accidentally killed in a U.S. bombing raid last week, Fox News Channel war correspondent Geraldo Rivera told viewers that he had said the Lord's Prayer over that "hallowed ground," where "the friendly fire took so many of our, our men and the mujahedeen yesterday."
But Rivera now acknowledges that he never visited the site where the U.S. servicemen died last Wednesday, just north of Kandahar in the southern region of Afghanistan. In an interview by satellite phone yesterday, Rivera said he had been mistaken in his report, which aired last Thursday.
For 72 hours, Rivera said, the "fog of war" had obscured the fact that there had been two separate "friendly fire" incidents. One was a misguided U.S. bombing raid in Kandahar Wednesday, he said. Another was a run by bombers over Tora Bora, hundreds of miles to the northeast, that took the lives of several Afghan fighters.
Rivera said he had visited the site of Afghan casualties in the mountains of Tora Bora Thursday in the mistaken belief that the Americans had died there rather than Kandahar. Throughout his two to three weeks in Afghanistan, Rivera said, he has been courageous and accurate in his reporting, and called last Thursday's dispatch an aberration. He indirectly alluded to the matter on the air late Monday night. Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for Fox News, called it "an honest mistake."
But a timeline offered by the Defense Department appears to contradict that explanation. Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that the deaths in Tora Bora took place sometime after Sunday morning, or at least three days after Rivera's report was broadcast.
In the middle of the story
This latest episode further fuels recurring criticism that Rivera - who has proclaimed that he's armed and eager to kill Osama bin Laden himself - routinely strains to place himself smack in the middle of his coverage at the expense of journalistic standards.
Officials at MSNBC and CNN, Fox News' chief competitors, said yesterday their reporters in Afghanistan learned within hours that the "friendly fire" incident that caused American deaths last Wednesday took place near Kandahar. Correspondents for all networks are routinely in touch with producers and coordinators back in the United States, they said.
Tunku Varadarajan, a cultural critic for the Wall Street Journal, mocked another Rivera report last Thursday in which the correspondent ducked in the face of apparent sniper fire. Rivera is "really the subject of the story," Varadarajan wrote Monday, "lest you thought, in a moment of stupidity, that it was about Afghanistan."
"I think he is a clown, basically," New York Times columnist Frank Rich said last weekend on CNN. His stories, with clear-cut morality tales of "good guys" and "bad guys," reflect "Rivera's self-aggrandizement," Rich said. "It's not about patriotism or anything else. It's about him trying to basically have reflected glory from the American military."
Yesterday, in a 20-minute interview peppered with profanity, Rivera railed against those who would question his work.
"It's time to stop bashing Geraldo," Rivera said. "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].
"Have you ever been shot at?" Rivera demanded. "Have you ever covered a war?"
Rivera characterizes his career as a sort of pilgrim's progress, from muckraker for a local station, to network reporter, to war correspondent, to syndicated showman, to liberal talk show host.
Man with a mission
Now, he has returned to the coverage of war. From the day of the terror attacks, Rivera, 58, spoke fervently of his anger with a nationalistic bent. He said the many deaths in his small New Jersey town led him to quit his anchor's desk at CNBC in November. He took a pay cut to travel to central Asia for Fox News. Since then, the television star that conservatives once loved to hate for his unabashed defense of President Clinton is now featured as a leading example of how patriotism has resurfaced in American life.
The veteran television war reporter angrily listed many of the hot spots he has reported from over the years. He also noted that he had won the Robert F. Kennedy award, a prestigious national journalism prize, last year for his reporting on conditions of women in jail.
So far in Afghanistan, he said, he has been the first television reporter to have covered the fall of Kunduz and the fighting in Tora Bora.
Later in the interview, however, Rivera also displayed an acute self-awareness of how he frames the stories he tells.
"There is an interesting journalistic debate over patriotism and covering the war on terrorism," Rivera said. "I have said publicly that I do not believe there's a moral equivalence between the two sides. But I don't change the facts of the war because of ideology.
'Forces of evil'
"There's been an aspect of boosterism that I would cop to," he said later. So al-Qaida becomes "the forces of evil," in Rivera-speak, and their network of caves are described as "the rats' nest." Tallies of deaths are described as "good guys" vs. "bad guys."
"I clearly have indulged in, not the [style of] Geraldo of syndicated days, but a more impassioned presentation," he said, adding, "It doesn't affect my factual presentation."
He said that his personal involvement in stories dates back to his days as a reporter at ABC's local station in New York City three decades ago, and said he understands that others might look askance. "Different strokes for different folks," he said. But he said he won't brook any "cheap shots" at the veracity of his reporting.
Reporters from many news organizations have made missteps in their coverage, and war is a notoriously complicated topic to render accurately. Participants can be mistaken or deceitful in their accounts; government versions also can prove unreliable at times. Wire service reporters and television correspondents often refine their versions of stories as any day passes.
In his own words
Here's what Rivera said last Thursday, a bit past 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, in a report filed from Tora Bora:
"We walked over what I consider hallowed ground today. We walked over the spot where the friendly fire took so many of our, our men, and the mujahedeen [anti-Taliban fighters] yesterday," Rivera said. "It was just - the whole place, just fried, really - and bits of uniforms and tattered clothing everywhere. I said the Lord's Prayer and really choked up."
Although he had shown video footage from the Tora Bora ranges in other stories on Thursday, he did not identify where he had seen the site of the so-called "friendly fire" incident.
A few minutes earlier, Fox News had run captions across the bottom of its screen describing the previous day's events, with some details about the deaths Wednesday of the three American special operations troops. The captions said they had been killed outside Kandahar.
As Rivera had been seen live on the air from Tora Bora both Wednesday and Thursday, journalists, Defense Department officials and international aid workers expressed skepticism that anyone could make a round-trip across such treacherous, distant terrain in that time. It would take 20 hours to 36 hours by car across ravaged roads each way, people with knowledge of the region said. They said helicopter flights were almost unheard of and would have afforded dubious safety.
Late Monday, after he had been told this newspaper raised questions about the report, Rivera briefly referred to the incident on the air. He noted the American deaths occurred in Kandahar but said that he had paid a visit to the site of the Tora Bora deaths.
"You know," he told viewers, "I know that Kandahar is the place that suffered that dreadful friendly fire incident involving our special operators and some of the mujahedeen. But we had one here as well. You know, I walked that hallowed ground. At least three mujahedeen fighters [were] killed because of the fluidity of the front line."
But the network's efforts to reconcile Rivera's accounts raise additional questions.
On Monday, for example, Zimmerman, the Fox News spokesman, had provided a script from a Rivera report filed early last Thursday, suggesting it validated the correspondent's claims. It referred to mujahedeen fighters returning from battle in Tora Bora - one shot in the hip, another hit in the forehead and arm. "An awful place of friendly fire," Rivera said, according to the script.
Those men, however, were only wounded, not killed.