The Mother Jones Interview: John Hockenberry

Tired of scandal? Want more on the Balkans? The smartest guy on MSNBC thinks you just don't get it.

John Hockenberry, currently the host of "Hockenberry" on MSNBC, returned to the network to fill the prime-time weeknight slot vacated when Keith Olbermann gave up "The Big Show" for a position at Fox Sports last winter. Hockenberry's reappearance on the network (his first show, "Edgewise," was canceled soon after the channel's debut) was regarded as a savvy move for the all-news cable channel, suggesting that MSNBC recognized the need for a new identity to replace its "All Monica, All the Time" reputation. A correspondent for National Public Radio for 12 years, and an Emmy-winning television correspondent for "Dateline NBC," Hockenberry has won praise for his work in almost all forms of media, including a thoughtful review in the New York Times of his one-man off-Broadway show, Spokeman. His autobiography, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence, was published in 1995 by Hyperion Press. Mother Jones talked with Hockenberry about the future of the post-impeachment news industry, and about the shape of journalism in an era of increasing centralization.

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Reporting seems to have been replaced these days by a personality-driven form of journalism, where it's not the reporter's information you're buying into, but rather the newsreader's personality. In fact, MSNBC is exactly that: It's show after show of different personalities bringing you the same basic news.

Actually, that's a level of crystallization of MSNBC's identity that eludes even some of the people there. It's a phenomenon that you find throughout the cable channels right now. I think everybody in news understands that the audience that watches for more than an hour is not your target audience -- because those people are on life support. That's unfortunately a feature of the news -- it's something that you check in on, not something that you follow as a story line, at least in the course of the day, unless there's some extraordinary story, like a little girl being pulled out of a well, or a --

Or a president --

Or a war or a president.

But in general, I think very few people have a sustained interest in news. News as a gather-round-the-fireplace impulse just doesn't exist at this time in America. All these mainstream outlets are going after an incredibly small audience compared to, say, ESPN, and that means that the news is kind of a fringe operation today, even though its values are born out of an utterly mainstream sensibility. We're this mainstream fringe.

Do you think the contest for this small audience, complicated by a more high-minded tradition, created the self-flagellation the media exhibited during the Monica Lewinsky scandal? The way the media seemed to say, "We hate ourselves for telling you this, but we're going to tell it to you again"?

The self-flagellation is definitely a sign that certain people, certain personalities, certain media have lost their way. And that's kind of sad. Look at a magazine like Brill's Content. Steven Brill's idea is that the media is to operate under the same standard as the court system in terms of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Founders would go nuts. They understood that there was a difference between the judiciary and the press. For Brill to encourage people in the media to adopt values like, We don't go with the story unless we know it beyond a reasonable doubt -- that's a Stalinist concept.

The media doesn't need a conscience; people need consciences. It's like the Pentagon saying, "We've got this special Division of Please Don't Slaughter the Civilians, but that's not a value we necessarily ascribe to individual soldiers."

You're saying that conscience should come from each individual journalist.

Each individual journalist -- and if you blow it, you're fired. I mean, that's as good a self-regulating environment as you get.

But could one point to the scandal-driven news of today and say a lack of conscience is being rewarded?

Well, they could say that, but where would the truth of that be? Take the semen-stained dress, for instance. It was true. Period. The end. This idea that we're scandal-driven is a veil for what's actually going on: It's leak-driven. [Certain] people in Washington wanted that story out.

But with the speed at which news moves today, it's not so much that people don't check to find out whether a story is true or not; it's that it's hard to take something back after you leak it.

I take a completely different view from that. I think all of them are news events. The leak is a news event, the leak being true is a news event, and the leak being not true is a news event. We have to cover all three of those. It's not so much whether the source is credible that determines whether you go with a story, but whether the source has a stake in the outcome. Then it's up to the reader or the viewer to judge. The only alternative is that we put the story through the Steve Brill Committee of Truth and Conformity, and I think that's absolutely outrageous.

But I think every journalist understands when they are the beneficiary of hot information that, yes, they have a scoop, but they're also being used. Part of your responsibility as a journalist is to tell the story of why that information is coming to you, consistent with the ground rules of your sourcing.

You know, it's odd for me to be in the position of endorsing the marketplace, or laissez-faire ideas, but I think in media they work much better than they do in capitalism. And I think that when people bemoan the good old days and think that journalism is out of hand, they're showing their unwillingness to understand what has changed in the way people get their information. It's much more our responsibility to face up to where things are now -- to determine what the new information paradigms are and to use those to serve the people -- than it is for us to slash our wrists, like the Steve Brills of the world, and pretend we're going to evolve some kind of judicial standard in reporting the news, because that's completely absurd.

One might argue that that's easy for you to say, coming from a large and powerful network, and that the industrialization of news is keeping certain kinds of news from reaching the same mass audience you have.

In fact, one of the consequences of the industrialization of news is that there is an enormous unserved audience that manifests itself at a local level. You've seen a growth in locally based media. Now, that's not to say that any of that is terribly profitable, or results in more jobs for journalists, but I think there is a counter-information flow at the local level, among people who have just dialed out of this whole hysterical game, and I think that is good.

What was it like to make a switch from National Public Radio to a major network newsmagazine?

The switch was remarkably unimportant. By the time I left NPR in 1992, it was an audience-driven, revenue-driven entity, not unlike corporate media outlets. The programming strategy was dominated by the ideal that we had to grow our audience in the same way that the commercial media grows its audience.

Yet you've referred to people at NPR being disappointed in you for taking this turn toward more commercial journalism.

That has nothing to do with me personally, but I think that NPR, because it is attempting to brand itself -- not unlike other media institutions -- has to have its rap that says, Hey, we're different, we're more in-depth and we're not doing all those stupid stories that those other people are doing, and we're saving the world. If ABC were to say that, people would just laugh at them. But I think the idea that NPR is more in-depth, or is saving the world, is about as laughable as NBC saying, "More Americans get their news from NBC than any other source." It's just one of those slogans.

What do you think is going to happen to the mini-industry of pundits and news programs that grew up around the impeachment story?

People will look in vain for the revolutionary watershed that the Lewinsky story represents, because I don't think that it really is a watershed. I think the Lewinsky story, as a troublesome event on the news horizon, is only troublesome as a main consequence of the post-Cold War era in news reporting.

During the Cold War, the media had its central story where everything was at stake, with all kinds of terrifying characters. The media today was created around that single story, a narrative that was followed day after day after day without a lot of questioning about whether this was really important or newsworthy. And so now that the Cold War is gone, you've seen disarray in virtually every institution in America, and no more disarray than in the media. We lost our story. So when a story like Lewinsky comes up, the media sort of goes back to square one, and there's a "Yes, now we know what to do" attitude about it.

Do you think the elections will be our next unifying story?

There's certainly nothing I see between now and then to replace it. We've learned a lot of lessons in each one of these little snapshot periods -- O.J., Diana, Monica -- about how to cover a slow news day, which is the real big challenge in the post-Cold War era. You really have to ask hard questions, you have to talk about people who aren't being talked about, you have to get out of this hot celebrity realm to focus on issues that are going to be very important later on, and each one of those decisions is a risk because you run the risk of losing your audience. Those are very, very tough calls.

Your show in particular faces that challenge every day, yet recently you covered the Oscars on a slow news day. You didn't ask the tough questions or talk to people that you normally don't hear from.

I wouldn't necessarily describe the impulse to talk about the Oscars as a lack of will in facing what really matters to America on a given day, although I can certainly be guilty of that.

One of the more memorable pieces you did recently for "Dateline NBC" was about the Americans with Disabilities Act -- specifically, about how the frivolous lawsuits its opponents warned us about have failed to materialize. You also poked holes in another reporter's ADA story -- one that John Stossel did for "20/20," in which he talked about, for example, the suit brought by the 400-pound subway worker who claimed he was denied promotion because of his disability -- in this case, his obesity. Is it hard to create a story that doesn't push those easy hot buttons, drawing on assumptions about bureaucracy and the potential abuse of regulation?

We look like an exception, but we're actually the rule. Our story worked [because] the media angers people, and when you point that out you get some of the same reaction as you get when you talk about crime, or opportunistic lawyers inhaling New York. But I think we saw an opportunity to really set things straight. We were just going to tell the story that the ADA isn't so bad: It was network management that urged us to go beat up John Stossel.

So in a way you had to conform to the same forces that shape Stossel's reporting.

I bristle a little bit at the idea of conformity. We weren't fighting [management] -- we actually thought it was a great idea to go after Stossel.

In this issue of Mother Jones, there are two stories about workplace discrimination law ["Is Your Office Bullyproof?"; "All or Nothing at All"]. Underlying our pieces is the assumption that all discrimination laws run the risk of creating frivolous lawsuits.

The legislation that came out of the civil rights movement made it actually a crime to discriminate. Today discrimination falls under the enforcement mechanism of the criminal justice system, so therefore the Department of Justice is empowered to go after people who are egregious violators, or violators at all. When you get out into the disability realm, a decision was made very early on in the [legislative process] that we're not going to make this a crime, we're not going to create an enforcement mechanism. They said, We'll just let the lawsuits deal with it -- and so the enforcement mechanism is frivolous lawsuits.

And you know, that's sad. I mean, if it was a frivolous lawsuit that was going to get the students in Little Rock into their school, instead of the National Guard, they'd still be drinking out of their own water fountains, without question.

Obviously, you have a personal stake in ADA issues. Have you thought much about how that's influenced your coverage of the law?

Getting back to your observation that there's a lot more opinion in news coverage nowadays, I think there are two reasons for that. One is that attitude and personality are perceived as ways to sell stories better. The other, more virtuous idea about why you inject personality or opinion into stories is in the interest of disclosure to the viewer or to the reader. When John Hockenberry does a story on the ADA, it's easier to evaluate that story if you understand what stake he has in the outcome.

And it also makes for a better story because I think people see that I'm an agent in my own empowerment -- or perhaps my undoing, as the case may be -- depending on who I happen to be confronting at any particular moment. Stories are constructed from the narrative of people staking their claim on issues that are deeply important to them, so a Charlayne Hunter-Gault telling a story about civil rights is intrinsically more interesting than hearing it from some guy from the suburbs who was just handed a press release.

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