Originally published in Spinal Network Extra, Fall 1990
by Skip Kaltenheuser
For those safe in front of their televisions, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s June 1989 funeral was surreal theatre, the inflamed masses jumping and hitting themselves in the head, the trampling of zealots into martyrs. For most Americans, being in the midst of that funeral thicket ranked with the worst of nightmares.
For reporter John Hockenberry, covering the event for National Public Radio, it was a dream come true. The Chinook helicopter carrying the press from downtown Tehran dropped him over a mile from the grave. Other reporters took off running while a frustrated Hockenberry sat in his wheelchair surveying a giant, impenetrable field of what looked like cauliflower. Suddenly, six Persians on their way to the funeral figured out Hockenberry was a newsman, picked him up in his chair and carried him toward the maelstrom. They then commandeered an ambulance, loaded Hockenberry and kept the ambulance from being turned over, fending off those who had fainted and were being passed over the crowd.
The pace has changed for Hockenberry. It’s worse. Five days a week, he wheels over the Brooklyn Bridge to Greenwich Village to prepare for his two-hour late-night radio show, Heat, syndicated nationwide on National Public Radio stations.
“The 14-hour days hit me with an energy requirement that is hysterical,” says Hockenberry. But his payoff comes when Heat’s eclectic, improvisational segments generate new perspectives. After a show on the heart, a weary Hockenberry was beaming over a radio conversation between a heart recipient and a heart donor. On another program, it may be Middle Eastern politics followed by an hour of people doing voice improvisations that sound like cartoon animal noises. The show’s experimental style might have ex–boxer George Foreman reading poetry or Hockenberry interviewing wheelchair innovator Ralf Hotchkiss, both in their wheelchairs, in the bowels of the miserably inaccessible New York City subway system. …
Hockenberry isn’t sure to what extent the challenge presented by his disability made foreign coverage attractive. On some levels, he doesn’t think he’d be as effective a reporter if he were nondisabled. “It’s impossible for me to separate the two. In a wheelchair, you’re immediately in touch with lots of different kinds of people you want to interview based on your disability. You don’t have to kiss their ass to get them to tell you things. If I’m curious about them, they’re curious about me times three, especially in the Third World. You get great stuff that way.”
Hockenberry’s work abroad demonstrated the limits of limitations. Indeed, he prefers some aspects of the Third World. “It’s easier to get help. There is no anxiety about helping, whereas here [in America], people get all weirded out. The person in the chair wonders, ‘gee, am I projecting dependency? What would my PT think about this?’ And the person helping wonders ‘doesn’t the government have some program for this? Why does this person even want up those stairs?’”…
Hockenberry says on some levels, discrimination is much more blatant in the United States. “If you can demonstrate you can do the job in the Third World, they go ‘Hey, great, no problem.’ And most important, they’re more inclined to relate your experience of success to theirs, because everyone in the Third World is dealing with insurmountable odds for everything — economically, medically, God knows what else.
“In the United States you can get out of rehab, you can get yourself your little sleaze-bag job, get your food stamps, your Welfare-state business. You try to get a legitimate job and people don’t take you seriously. And there’s a real likelihood in the United States that you can spend your life not being taken seriously. That’s something that does not happen in the Third World.”
Hockenberry says the curb cuts, ramps and elevators, along with the legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, are welcome here in the United States. “But in the Third World, you find you don’t even miss those things. Here [in the United States] people presume the problem is solved by dealing with the tangible, physical elements. In the Middle East, you see how much more civil rights and disability are really a social question.” Such questions, whether for race, gender or disability, are far from being resolved here, he says.
Hockenberry may be the perfect poster child for inclusion, not because all is peachy in the United States, but because he has cleared his own path to success. Not long after this profile appeared, he published a memoir, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence, describing his life as a foreign correspondent. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996.
His true forte is broadcast journalism, for which he has won three Peabody Awards and four Emmys. He is happily married, with five children. His latest radio show, The Takeaway, analyzes mainstream news on public radio and seeks a deeper understanding of current issues. A recent program took a hard look at the Affordable Care Act’s effect on Native Americans, characterized the Ukraine through the lens of Russian literature, and sketched a fascinating picture of what’s at stake in South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius murder trial. Hockenberry is no longer a revolutionary outsider. His is a uniquely original voice in mainstream journalism.