Media: Have wheels will travel

Two journalists covering the Kosovo war are fighting their own battles, one `back from the dead', the other from his wheelchair
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The Independent Culture
Newcomers at the Tirana refugee camp in Albania must wonder about the stocky man who slogs from tent to tent every day in a wheelchair looking for people to talk to, rain dripping from his hair and mud caking to the hands that try to propel him forward. His plight looks as bad as almost anyone's in the city of green tents. He is not from Kosovo, however. He is an American television anchorman.

John Hockenberry has been broadcasting his one-hour news show that runs nightly on the US cable channel, MSNBC, live from the camp outside the Albanian capital. Indeed, he was the first US anchor move to the Balkans.

By rights, Hockenberry, 42, should have had the best excuse of anyone to stay behind. He has been paralysed from the chest down and wheelchair- bound since February 1976. At just 19 years of age, he broke his back in a car crash in Pennsylvania. He and a friend had been hitchhiking.

He goes before his lone camera in the mud every morning - at 4am, Albanian time - to see through his hour-long programme of analysis and discussion about what has happened during the previous day in the conflict. Chairs are drawn up beside him for visiting humanitarian officers while satellite technology links him to politicians and commentators in Washington. One producer - able-bodied - who went with him to Albania found the conditions too extreme and returned to New York within a week.

The Albania excursion is in character for Hockenberry, who has left a wife and twin daughters behind in Brooklyn. He considers himself a journalist working on the same terms as the rest of us.

But it took about five years from the day of his accident to his first finding peace with his disability. Those first years - as well as those that brought him to broadcast prominence - are described in a memoir, called Declarations of Independence. "For five years, you really wonder what you're going to do. I mean at 19, you know. I mean, are you going to date? And then you date. And you discover you can do things."

Among the things he did was spend two years as Middle East correspondent for NPR in the late Eighties, based in Jerusalem. He also covered the Gulf war. His days in Albania are reminiscent of the scene that he describes at the book's outset - him riding bareback across from Turkey into Iraq, just after Baghdad's surrender, to witness the exodus from the region of Kurdish refugees. The donkey collapsed with exhaustion on the way home leaving Hockenberry on his back in the mud and unable to use his catheter to relieve himself without risking fatal infection.

That experience forced him to face a vital question: was he a journalist who just happened to be a paraplegic, or a paraplegic who was stretching the perils of his job as war reporter to prove a point to himself? Then, he wasn't sure. Today he is. "I can say now that, yes, absolutely, I am in it for the right reasons." Don't, however, come to Hockenberry and go all mushy about "triumph over adversity". If he has a message this, he insists, is not it: "I'm in journalism because, my God, my life really sucks and I've managed to turn it into a bowl of cherries here."

David Usborne

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