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August 31, 2015

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OMG — Sen. Geraldo Rivera?

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The spectacle of TV personality Geraldo Rivera using his soapbox with Fox News to test-market a possible run for the U.S. Senate has, not surprisingly, caused some real journalists to cough up hairballs.

“If an on-air person makes any pretense about being a journalist, then obviously he should not be using his station or network to promote his candidacy,” Marvin Kalb, former NBC News stalwart and a founder of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, told Media Matters. “He should immediately pull himself/herself off the air, then announce his candidacy and run.”

Or, as Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, put it, “Running for public office and being a journalist are incompatible.”

Now, I may be doing Geraldo a disservice, but to me he has always been a vaguely clownish self-promoter, and it’s hard for me to condemn him for betraying journalistic principle when I never thought he was a journalist. He can hardly have corrupted a professionalism he didn’t profess, and in that respect there’s no point in defrocking him, since he was never ordained.

That doesn’t, however, mean what he’s doing now is OK. But to me, the sin isn’t his; it’s Fox News’. Here I agree with David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, who said it’s “really wrong that Fox allows itself to play this political role.”

The wrongdoing doesn’t have to do with Geraldo’s personal failure to uphold some kind of journalistic neutrality. It lies in Fox News’ institutional failure to accept some responsibility for encouraging fairness in the political system.

Fox is so widely recognized for the conservative tilt of its news and commentary that assailing its political judgment might seem superfluous. But partisanship is one thing. It doesn’t license Fox to do whatever it likes by unleashing its marquee talent to misuse their positions for personal gain — while denying anything like a reasonable say to their critics, let alone their adversaries.

Geraldo’s chutzpah is legendary, and he gives every indication now that he’ll exploit his platform to the fullest. On his Fox radio show Jan. 31, after he announced he was “truly contemplating” a campaign for a New Jersey Senate seat, he invited Fox Business Network host Andrew Napolitano to declare his support.

“Absolutely,” Napolitano replied. “To help you get that job because you are an understander — a rare understander — of the nature of human freedom and the role of government in our lives. I would welcome this as a great gift at this stage in my life that I could call you senator.”

A day after that moist display of on-air sycophancy, Geraldo was interviewed by Fox host Laura Ingraham on “The O’Reilly Factor,” cable TV’s top-rated program. There he got down into the campaign weeds. He outlined his hybrid position on gun violence (supporting both universal background checks and more New York-style stop-and-frisk policing), and he suggested letting profit-seeking companies whose owners oppose birth control avoid providing free contraception to employees, as the Obama reforms require.

“Well, Geraldo, I’m listening to you,” Ingraham said. “You’re sounding like you are putting together policy papers almost like a future senator.”

“Move to Jersey,” Geraldo suggested.

Obviously, this is electioneering, and the free feedback he solicits from viewers and potential donors amounts to a big-bucks campaign contribution from Fox.

But the network’s position has been: “Geraldo would have to step aside as soon as he made a formal decision, and we’re continuing to monitor the situation.”

This isn’t new for Fox. The network has a record of putting GOP aspirants on the air and on the payroll, including two men who later ran for the presidential nomination in 2012, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich; Ohio Gov. John Kasich (a Fox News presence for nine years); and current or former candidates in Virginia, Mississippi and Massachusetts.

From a commercial perspective, that record is understandable. These are seasoned, knowledgeable on-screen talents who would draw viewers if they were guests, let alone hosts.

But this practice constitutes a form of political patronage that raises the barriers to entry for independent outsiders and tilts the table against known rivals who have never gotten soapboxes, or paychecks, of comparable value.

It subverts the rough and tumble of honest adversarialism, and its most enduring legacy is, I’m afraid, to create a wing of the political class that is reliably beholden to Fox News.

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for the Miami Herald.

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