CNN goes full 'Al Capone's Vault' on Cohen tape

When CNN obtained a copy of a tape recording of a call between candidate Donald Trump and his then-lawyer Michael Cohen, the network's people knew they had to have something big, because it was a chance to hurl innuendo at President Trump – and, fingers crossed, maybe even find evidence of a crime that would force Trump out of office.  Visions of Watergate danced though their heads.

CNN promoted its acquisition of the tape and is featuring it prominently on its website today.

Alas for the Trump-haters at CNN and elsewhere: the tape, aired last night, was as empty as Al Capone's vault was for Geraldo Rivera more than three decades ago.

For readers too young to remember when Gerry Rivers, AKA Geraldo Rivera, officially became a national joke, the AV Club summarizes what happened after Rivera had been fired by ABC and sought a career boost with a syndicated live TV opening of a vault that was reputed to have been used by the famous gangster:

The premise behind the special was both ingenious and ridiculous.  Producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (yes, the guy from The People's Court) heard that 1920s mob boss Al Capone's old base of operations, Chicago's Lexington Hotel, was planning a renovation, and that the surveyors had discovered walled-off subterranean chambers on the property.  Excited by the possibility of finding human remains (in the case of which, forensic examiners would be standing by) or caches of money (which IRS agents were prepared to seize), Joslyn and Llewelyn proposed a live broadcast around the demolition of the wall, because they knew that if they pretaped the big reveal, then the contents would be known well in advance of airtime.

Unable to convince any of the major networks to back a stunt with no clear outcome, Joslyn and Llewelyn partnered with the syndicator Tribune Entertainment.  As it turned out, the networks were right to be wary.  What the excavators found, ultimately, was nothing.  A pile of dirt and a few empty bottles.  No bones, no loot, no tommy guns or discarded fedoras.  For two hours in primetime, Rivera hosted what amounted to a remedial documentary about gangsters and prohibition – complete with vintage clips and photos and interviews with historians – capped off by a few minutes at the end where he sheepishly admitted they'd wasted everyone's time.

The reviews were harsh.  Even beyond the anticlimax, The New York Daily News was appalled by the glib romanticism of The Mystery Of Al Capone's Vaults, saying, "Rivera's cheerleader tone was incongruous with the violent subject[.] ... Disturbing was the tendency to glamorize the gangster, who was known as 'Scarface' and 'Public Enemy No. 1.' Rivera described him as 'charming and generous' at one point, but quickly added he was 'a mass murderer of his time.'"

Geraldo and Tribune Media at least got huge ratings, though Rivera's reputation took a hit whose sting has not completely vanished.  We don't know what kind of ratings CNN harvested, but its reputation, already shaky and continually impugned by President Trump, is not going to be enhanced by its "scoop."