Wheel of Fortune

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.

Indeed, Hockenberry’s career is a weird mixture of the traditional – even the nostalgic – and a search for the postmodern, high-concept, and experimental.

Paralyzed at 19 from the nipples down when he hitches a ride from a girl who falls asleep at the wheel, he gets a ceta grant to be a local correspondent for NPR in Eugene, Oregon (we marvel together at the age of liberal government). At 25, with a high-school debater’s voice, he goes to Washington to write and deliver the news for “All Things Considered.” He becomes NPR’s weekend reporter during the Reagan years, then NPR’s Jerusalem correspondent. He covers the fall of Ceausescu, is on the front line during the Gulf War, then in the Kurdish refugee camps after the war.

It used to be that such postings, and demonstration of journalistic courage, made you. That’s the nostalgic part.

He launches two groundbreaking shows on NPR: “Heat” and “Talk of the Nation.” Then he goes to ABC. He’s promised longform magazine stuff and joins the Forrest Sawyer show, Day One, which, shortly, is “crunched between the jaws of Cap Cities and Roone Arledge.” He finds himself on Sunday morning with Willow Bay.

In the new television age of cable and takeovers, he pitches, wildly, “a morning documentary show to Fox … the camera is the character … the more cameras you can get out there the more stories you can have … and then a show just about elections … elections everywhere, an orgy of elections … elections like sports … total horse race … and then cameras in reporters’ offices … voyeuring on the media… . ” He recounts a dinner at Le Bernardin, where the “GNP of Cameroon went across our table,” pitching “my heart out.” But then, two weeks later, Fox is hiring Roger Ailes and off in a different direction (Fox, Hockenberry points out, has been so successful and made stars out of people “you wouldn’t let onto a jury” because it has re-created the Cold War. That is its powerful message: They’re coming; only Bill O’Reilly can save us).

He goes to NBC, gets a berth among the many people berthed at Dateline. He starts one of the first MSNBC shows, Edgewise – “Charlie Rose meets The War Room.” But it’s a weekly show, and suddenly everybody found out only a daily show had any stick on cable. Canceled. Two years later, he’s back with Hockenberry, his daily show, which starts with impeachment, runs into Kosovo, follows into Columbine, and then … nothing. No news. Suddenly the numbers all over the dial start heading to zero. The format changes again, it’s Headliners and LegendsTime and Again … hour-long biographies … and Hockenberry is canceled (it may not have helped that one night, in his daily “question of the day” segment, Hockenberry’s question was: “How badly does cable news suck?”).

As it happens, Hockenberry’s career is not terribly different from most media, or content, careers in a deregulated world. It is an unregulated free-for-all. And while Hockenberry may, in his television heart, be hoping against hope for the anchor call, the truth is he is very good at what he does – which is to make it up as you go along.

Last week, Ted Koppel confronted Michael Eisner in a sit-down with the Washington bureau of ABC News, maintaining that the news division should be spared personnel cuts because some of its correspondents had been killed abroad. Indeed, Koppel quizzed Eisner about whether he knew the name of an ABC reporter killed in Bosnia.

Eisner is said to have replied – no doubt very reasonably, in his mind – that he could not even exempt Disney animators from the coming cuts.

I have been trying to think about the disconnect here – and the disconnect is very clearly Koppel’s more than Eisner’s.

Does Koppel, like Hewitt, reside in another media world? A preserved space? Does this go to Hockenberry’s Cold War point – news once had a special function and newspeople were a protected class?

Since it is obvious that the Koppel-Hewitt world is not returning, however boldly Koppel takes on his boss (indeed, what must Eisner have thought?), perhaps it’s better to get rid of people who think it might be – to officially, more or less, acknowledge that news, as we know it, no longer exists. And that, therefore, it’s every newsman for himself.

Anyway, I’m reading Hockenberry’s novel. Not a television person’s book at all. Not a brand extension – but a first novel, all about place, politics, good and evil, violence. And Chinook salmon. If you can’t do nonfiction, do you go to fiction?

Or do you get a reality game show of your own?

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Is there a future for TV’s talking heads? Talk with “This Media Life” columnist Michael Wolff in an online chat Wednesday, April 25, at 8 p.m. on newyorkmag.about.com.

Wheel of Fortune