Return of the Rolling Reporter
"It's actually much easier to live as a disabled person in the third world than in the United States or Germany or Great Britain," John Hockenberry was telling us. "They're used to being humiliated and having themselves be made fools of--in which case I fit in. I was used to being made a fool of. So we were all like brothers. If I needed half the neighborhood to carry me up the stairs, there was half the neighborhood. No one cares how anything looks."
Two years ago, National Public Radio took a long, hard swallow and sent John Hockenberry overseas. There was an unexpected opening in Jerusalem, and Hockenberry, a superb reporter who'd been driving everyone nuts for years begging for foreign duty, said he could leave the next day.
But Hockenberry is a paraplegic. Well, do the best you can, his bosses told him.
"As if I had to be told that!" he sputtered to us just before he left. After 12 years in a wheelchair, since a woman giving him a lift fell asleep on the Indiana Toll Road, Hockenberry did nothing by half measures. As an NPR reporter in Chicago in the mid-80s, he'd often wheeled himself from his home in Hyde Park into work at 230 N. Michigan. He'd manage in Israel.
A few days ago we heard that Hockenberry had been reassigned to New York. We called him there and found him full of stories and observations.
"Americans will help you with electric doors at supermarkets," he said. "But when you're talking five flights of stairs, or getting through the rubble in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, that's when you need the real help."
And in the Middle East it was always at hand, he discovered.
"First of all, if you show up in the Gaza Strip with blond hair, blue eyes, a microphone and a tape recorder in your lap, and a wheelchair that looks like what Batman would use, you're attracting a lot of attention right there. And when you come to the rubble and are stopped you don't even have to ask. It's a very natural thing--there's no moment where you think, 'I'm going to have to ask someone to help me.'"
Last spring, Hockenberry spent ten days in Iran covering the Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral. A Chinook helicopter flew the press from downtown Tehran out to the general area of the burial; but when his copter set down, Hockenberry found himself sitting in his wheelchair in a field more than a mile from the grave. The other reporters took off running. "There was no way for me to move in this giant field--it looked like a giant cauliflower field--and I'm sitting there wishing maybe they could bury him over here because I'm not going to get a story. And these Persians, these wonderful people on the way to the funeral, figured out what I was . . .
"All told, there were six of them," Hockenberry said, "two people carrying me, two my chair, one my equipment, and the sixth was for moral support. They carried me almost two kilometers and they were running the whole way." When they reached pavement they put Hockenberry down and ran interference for his wheelchair. Then the leader of the group, a chubby man in his late 30s whose name Hockenberry made out to be "Oscar," commandeered an ambulance. Hockenberry and another reporter climbed in back.
"There were people fainting and being passed over the crowd to the ambulance, and Oscar is keeping these injured people from getting into the ambulance. We were afraid the people were going to turn over the ambulance at one point, but Oscar won the day."
Oscar and his friends stayed at Hockenberry's side for six hours. "The only word he knew was 'Mr. John' and the only word I knew was 'Oscar.' There were other people to speak English with in the crowd and at certain points I sort of wished I could lose him. But what the heck! He was certainly a lot less irritating than a lot of PR people I've worked with in Chicago, and a lot more reliable. It's true he didn't have a press kit, but that's one of the refreshing things about reporting overseas. You get away from all that mess."
Were you ever frightened? we asked him. The one time things got really tense, he said, was driving into Bucharest with his girlfriend last Christmas Day. She'd been visiting him in Jerusalem, and when NPR sent him to Romania she insisted on going, too. Actually, he was glad to have her there. The only way in was overland: Hockenberry wasn't sure he'd be able to rent a car in Belgrade with an automatic transmission, and his hand controls didn't work with stick shifts. But she could drive.
"It didn't get scary until after nightfall, and the road was crawling with all these impromptu revolutionary checkpoints. There was just tons of gunfire and tanks," Hockenberry said. "All you could hear was gunfire all around you, at one point over our heads. You figure no one's going to notice if you're blown away."
Eventually they gave someone a couple of cigarettes to lead them to the Intercontinental Hotel, and once they were in their room, Hockenberry felt much better. "From the balcony, you had a perfect view of the snipers," he said. "You could see what they were going after, what kind of weapons they were using."
This was a different sort of violence from what he'd become accustomed to in the Middle East. Here it was to some end. A government was at stake. Back in Israel it was chronic and indecisive.
"The Israelis want to kill and maim Palestinians and the Palestinians want to kill and maim Israelis. And they want you to watch them kill and maim each other. . . . Jerusalem," Hockenberry went on, "is a city that has learned to live with hatred and misery and violence and is very proud of that. Its identity is bound up with its ability to act as if everything is normal and in a moment whip out the petrol bombs, whip out the Uzis, and then go back to eating white cheese and pita bread."
The fighting there was miserable and endless, and because it was endless, said Hockenberry, the world has lost interest in it. The Middle East was eclipsed last year by China, then by Eastern Europe. Hockenberry began to feel it was time to move on. Last November, when NPR offered him a job back in New York, he took it. "I must say," he conceded, "I felt different after coming out of Romania. 'Screw the States! Let's go to Johannesburg!'"
He meant it. "If there is one place I'd love to go to, it's South Africa," he told us. It's available? we asked. "Basically, yes," he said. But he's thought it over. What NPR wants him to do now will be good for him, Hockenberry believes, and he's willing to argue that it will also be good for America. So he settled in Brooklyn, and has taken to wheeling himself across the Brooklyn Bridge to work--"a great little three-mile run." And beginning March 5, he'll preside five nights a week, 10 PM to midnight, over two hours of talk--with dollops of music, satire, and what-have-you--that'll be called Heat. WBEZ will carry the show every night but Friday.
"I must say, I feel a need to kick around the ideas that have come out of the last two years," said Hockenberry. "It's nice to have a program where you can do long discussions of things and sort of think of the connections between them."
Of course, he's been away for two years, so it's possible he's missed a sizzling exchange or two, but it's his impression that many Americans have done very little thinking along the lines he wants to generate.
"The Reagan years have made Americans so complacent!" Hockenberry said. "As though Ron stood tough and the Berlin Wall fell down and American policy is vindicated. I mean, Romania one week, the west side of Chicago the next. What the Romanian people would ask for is no different from what people on West Madison would ask for and the only difference is how to get people organized. America is just as ripe for radical change as these places. This whole business ain't over yet, and this show is a chance to--I don't know--be a little bit provocative. There's just such a paranoia in the media about being liberal. The liberals have lost their language for criticizing the establishment except as sort of ineffectual gadflies. And that decided it.
"I would love tomorrow to go to South Africa," he said. "And with Mandela released I would go crazy. But with Mandela released the issue comes back to Bedford-Stuyvesant, southwest D.C., and Watts. You'd be hard-pressed to see much difference between Soweto and southwest D.C."
Taking Off the Wrap
When's the last time anybody remembers the Sun-Times striking an attitude of cocky nonchalance? Last week the new sports daily, the National, hit Chicago. And last week the Sun-Times coolly announced it was abolishing its onetime pride and joy, its wraparound Monday sports section.
We were surprised at the timing. "That was one of the caution flags raised here," editor Dennis Britton acknowledged. 'You shouldn't do it with the National coming.' [But] I decided our sports coverage is strong enough to stand up to that."
Britton said he wanted to send Sun-Times readers a message about the paper's priorities. "I was struck a couple of times by Monday papers with sporting events on page one when there'd been very important news events--in fact, the archdiocesan school closings. I think we owe more to our readers than that."
Former executive editor Ken Towers introduced the sports wrap during the 1987 football season and it was a big success. Britton said circulation jumped by as much as 20,000 copies after Bears victories. But when they lost, it didn't jump. And the wrap didn't have much effect on circulation the rest of the year.
"We did a quick and dirty survey of seven-day-a-week sports readers in Chicago," Britton told us, "and the answer was that by and large they didn't care if we got rid of the wrap. They just didn't want less coverage."
Britton's original idea was to replace the sports wrap with a pullout sports section. "I was going down a primrose path," said Britton, the former deputy managing editor of the multiply sectioned Los Angeles Times. "I thought it would be a hell of a service for them." But there was one other thing readers didn't want; they didn't want to have to riffle through the Monday paper looking for the sports pages.
Tabloids are different. As Britton's learning.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.