In 2012, journalist John Hockenberry took the TED stage and talked about living life with intent. In his talk, “We Are All Designers,” he recalled his favorite design moment: While he was covering the collapse of Zaire, amid the failure of the banks, looting and bullets flying overhead, someone began shouting at Hockenberry. It was another man in a wheelchair, and he wanted to compare his wheels to Hockenberry’s.
Years later, Hockenberry installed flashy caster wheels to the front of his wheelchair, which he has used since a car accident when he was 19, and said he wished he could have shown them to the man in Zaire.
While he was a music major at the University of Oregon, he called KLCC to complain about the public radio station’s programming. Hockenberry tells Eugene Weekly that he didn’t intend on becoming a journalist, but KLCC invited him to become a news volunteer after receiving his critique.
“So I was just interested enough in trying something new,” Hockenberry says. “Eugene was this place to try something new.”
His KLCC volunteer gig landed him a job at NPR in Washington. Since then he has reported as a foreign correspondent from Zaire, Jerusalem, Iran, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey and Jordan and has worked for ABC and NBC.
For the past eight years he has hosted the Takeaway, a daily news show broadcast from WNYC in New York. Hockenberry was this year’s inaugural speaker at Lane Community College’s Presidential Lecture Series.
Eugene Weekly: I read that you first called KLCC to complain about a story, and I was wondering what story did you call and complain about?
John Hockenberry: It’s a famous old story. I didn’t call in to complain about a particular story, I just complained that they were using too many repeats from the morning network shows and putting them on their local special. And I was at home practicing the piano because I was a music student at the UO, and I was just in a nasty kind of mood. I just picked up the phone and I said, “Why don’t you rename your Blue Plate Special noon show NPR Playback, how would that be? Because maybe that’s more correct?”
And I was prepared for any answer other than the one Don Hein, who was the news director back then, said. “Well, we’re a public station and we like to have everyone’s input, so why don’t you come down and be a part of the creation of the news. We’d love to have you come down and we’ll listen to your ideas.”
I mean this is like something out of some weird Bible story. I mean, it didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t say anything, so I just said, maybe I will. And then I did. And I went there and I loved it. I knew a lot about history. I knew a lot about science. My curiosity really drove my interest in news, and I was good with audio equipment because of my music background.
I kicked around as a volunteer for a while, and then Mount St. Helens erupted and all of a sudden the station was in the middle of this big story. In that first year it was still erupting and they needed people to do the little eruptions, and I did the little eruption stories. Gradually, I did bigger stories about the region and I remember I did the first story for NPR on Amazon. Amazon.com launched itself, and it got a center column piece in the Wall Street Journal, and I remember thinking that’s amazing — that’s going to be a big deal.
From that time, KLCC has been the birthplace of trying things that are a little scary.
So before you volunteered, it wasn’t your plan to become a journalist, it just happened?
No, I was studying French Baroque harpsichord with a teacher I loved at the University of Oregon. I loved the harpsichord. We had worked on the problems with me playing the piano because I couldn’t do the pedals. I tried to invent a machine that would try and work it out. I came pretty close with this machine and that was my project as a junior. It went very well, but it taught me that I didn’t want to be an inventor. But I got sidetracked, and journalism was it.
Where was your first assignment abroad?
Jerusalem in the middle of the first uprising called Intifada — young people throwing rocks at Israeli troops. It was deliberately designed to be asymmetrical so that the Israelis would have to use their heavy weapons against young kids who were just throwing rocks, so the pictures would sort of tell the tale of what the occupation was about.
I loved living in Jerusalem; I love the confusion and the contradictions of the place. You pick up the phone and there’s no dial tone. You turn on the water; it doesn’t work. There’s no electricity for hours at a time.
If you’re a disabled person, this is your orientation. You wake up in the morning and go, “Oh, what’s going to screw up now?” I found that it was just so familiar being in a place like that just having this expectation that things weren’t going to work and that people were around to help.
Jerusalem wasn’t the only place that had that — Cairo was that way. Tehran was that way. In Africa, Somalia, the Congo, I mean in the midst of horrible conflict, terrible cruelty and death and pestilence and famine and things that just broke your heart, still there was just this sense that most of the world was having this experience that stuff just isn’t going to go your way. I felt bonded to that.
During your TED Talk when you talked about being in Zaire, the DRC now, and you were talking about how this other person in a wheelchair came up to you, and then you guys were sort of invisible and you were just there. What was going on around you?
There were riots in the center of Kinshasa. People were pouring out of the banks. It was just falling apart and these poor people were just being told that their life savings were worth nothing.
And in the middle of this whole big crowd of chaos this guy rolls up selling newspapers, on his hand-cranked wheelchair, and he wants to compare. And everybody just stepped around us we were like in this world shielded, this brotherhood of something that was so magical, and he was proud of what he’d done and he wanted to show me. And I couldn’t speak a word of what he was speaking and he knew no English, but we had like a half hour conversation just looking at tires and spokes.
My producer said, “We have to get the fuck out of here now!” Just bullets flying and everything, and I said goodbye. He just said “Jambo,” which is kind of see you later in another life. I still get all choked up just thinking about that.
What do you do when you interview difficult people? The one interview that comes to my mind was the day after the election when you talked to Paul Ramsey and he’s just going on and on and said things like Hungary doesn’t have the threat of Muslims, and women can walk around without worrying about being raped. And then he talked about getting back to being this 80 or 90 percent white Christian nation. What do you do during those interviews?
The key in something like that is you don’t want to debate him. You want him to say what is his gospel; you want to hear from his mouth what he believes. You want to put him in context that he believes he has influence and he does have influence and you get that out of him. He realized that he was going to have to take the position of deporting tens of millions of people.
It was just a way of letting him not hang himself, but reveal himself. I would rather have people understand their influence and then understand what it is they are trying to achieve, and they can make their own decision about whether this person is dangerous or not.
So as the U.S. continues to fall on the World Press Freedom index, it’s 43 out of 181, what advice do you have for journalists who are living in a place where the president has called the press an enemy of the American people?
Wear it like a badge. Sure, that’s my necktie. I’m an enemy of the people? Okay, prove it. I’ll save more people than you save any day.
Trump and his tweets are his worst enemy. The enemy of the people is the deteriorating U.S. economy, the degraded educational system, the inability of the U.S. to match jobs with workers, the increasing divisions and inequalities in income. I’m afraid of them. I’m not afraid of my colleagues in journalism.