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Wheel of Fortune

He's smart, he's funny, and he's multitalented. So why is John Hockenberry parked in network purgatory instead of saving the news?


John Hockenberry had just returned from Tina Brown's media conference in Santa Barbara when we met for lunch at Michael's (there is no wheelchair access in the restaurant, so he had to be borne by the staff down the steps into the dining room). Hockenberry, who shortly before this was the hit of the TED conference (he is the hit of the TED conference every year), and who was soon to talk at Kurt Andersen's conference (since canceled), is the ultimate conference trophy -- you haven't had a media conference if you don't have Hockenberry. He's the media person's media person.

This is partly because of the wheelchair, which is visually powerful (at last year's TED conference, he demonstrated Dean Kamen's technologically super-duper wheelchair -- it climbs steps and brings its passenger up to eye level). But it is, I think, also because Hockenberry is the new model of the content guy -- talking head, writer, performer, interactive type, producer, packager, flogger. "A genre," he says, "in search of a time slot." Likewise, the role of content guy and its trials has given him a Paddy Chayefsky- or Dennis Potter-ish aspect, which conferencees seem to enjoy (at Tina's conference, he conducted a credible cell-phone conversation with Osama bin Laden about possible media-macher targets).

Hockenberry has been an NPR voice, a foreign correspondent, a war reporter, a cable personality, an interactive guy (last summer, I ran into him in the basement of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he was streaming media from the Democratic convention); he has, on two occasions, had his own news show, and two times been canceled; he has written and performed a one-man Off Broadway show; he has written a best-selling memoir about a media guy in a wheelchair and now, published this week, a novel, A River Out of Eden, a kind of Gorky Park set in the Northwest, which is where Hockenberry's career started.

There's an itinerant quality to Hockenberry of going anywhere to find an audience -- and to some degree of being willing to do anything. There's Hockenberry live, which is funny and mean -- a dangerous character; there's Hockenberry from some foreign-disaster area, which is classic, smell-the-bodies war reporting; and there is Hockenberry doing jury-rigged magazine-format stuff (last week on Dateline, Hockenberry was part of some vaguely embarrassing piece about the faulty memories of crime witnesses -- with viewers e-mailing in their reaction to the crime scene).

One question is why Hockenberry isn't more famous than he is -- but this may not be the right question. An interesting and compelling thing about Hockenberry is that for a television guy he's strangely, or refreshingly, unbranded. You don't really know what his role is. In theory, of course, Hockenberry is a television newsman, but that isn't really a title anymore, or even a job description. Possibly he's a new sort of television renaissance man -- a twenty-first-century Steve Allen. As likely, the content guy is just more ad hoc, on the fly, and cross-platform than we're used to.

Hockenberry is part of the lost generation of network news -- career broadcast-news people who have in some way been upstaged by high-concept personalities, from O'Reilly to Matthews to Oprah.

At the same time that Hockenberry's first novel is being published, so is a memoir by Don Hewitt, the 800-year-old executive producer of 60 Minutes, called Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television. The book is dictated and slapdash, a charmless, almost vanity-press collection of martini reminiscences ("I absolutely adore this book . . . Many bravos!" says Tina Brown in her blurb), filled with observations like "The bank robber Willie Sutton got it right when he said . . . " Nevertheless, its very lack of care and self-awareness lends a certain nakedness to Hewitt's description of network-news culture (big scoops, crazy antics, wonderful broads, absolute certainty); it doesn't exist anymore, that's clear -- but it hasn't been replaced by anything else, either. The portrait is all the more vivid because Hewitt seems only to dimly appreciate that the biggest event of his career is the disappearance of network news as he practiced it for 50 years.

In Hockenberry's analysis, television news was made not just out of martinis and a 95 percent audience share but out of the decades-long story of the Cold War. That was a storytelling device. It was the ultimate frame -- and television newspeople the ultimate narrators. That's why the network alter kockers can't retire -- you'd never be able to re-create them (I often see the ever-more-preserved Barbara Walters, supported by two large attendants, being taken out for some air in the park).

And that's why, he believes, the next generation of television news hasn't happened. It's not only that nobody is big enough; it's not even clear what anyone should be -- if not avuncular, Waspish, Greatest Generation-ish.

What are the skills, virtues, attributes, look, and feel of a modern news guy?

Chris Matthews is a yeller -- that works!

CNBC is like a sitcom on a trading floor -- that works, for now anyway.

Bill O'Reilly and Emeril have a lot in common.

But such success is a crapshoot -- it's as difficult to score in news as in sitcoms.

Hockenberry and I have moved our discussion about TV-news careers to his office at NBC, overlooking the skating rink in Rockefeller Center. It's like a college dorm room or political-campaign office.

On the most basic level, the conversation Hockenberry and I are having is about making a living. (Hockenberry lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Alison; they have twin 2-year-old daughters; they have another set of twins who will shortly be born. We discuss school bills, of course.) How do you achieve some stability as a content person? What do you aspire to if the content business is all about filling airtime cheaply or being a screwball night after night? What's success (as opposed to just endurance)? But on another level, it's about form.

At 44, Hockenberry is part of the transitional or even lost generation of network news, which includes people like Robert Krulwich, Forrest Sawyer, Thalia Assursas (the most-downloaded news anchor on the Internet), and Meredith Vieira (now on The View) -- all career broadcast-news people who have in some way been upstaged by high-concept personalities, from O'Reilly to Matthews to Oprah.

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