Life

John Hockenberry’s Cri de Coeur of Heartlessness

His Harper’s essay is an attempt at self-redemption that achieves the exact opposite of its goal.

John Hockenberry.
John Hockenberry on April 24, 2014, in New York City.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival

In 2017, the radio journalist John Hockenberry left his nearly decadelong job as host of the public radio program The Takeaway. Soon he was hit with allegations of bullying and sexual harassment, credibly documented in press accounts and confirmed in an internal investigation commissioned by his former employer, WNYC, which found “discriminatorily harassing conduct.”

Now, more than a year since Hockenberry was paid to talk into a microphone, he’s penned an essay for Harper’s claiming to explain his actions. It makes you realize why savvy defense lawyers seldom allow their clients to testify in their own defense.

It is the rare #MeToo mea culpa that includes a lengthy description of how the penis functions during sex, but this one does. It’s odd for a man seeking to communicate that he understands the damage he has caused to label his accusers “cowardly,” but that can be found in the second paragraph. I, for one did not expect to encounter any of the following in an essay intended to convince the reader that Hockenberry had looked inward and found fault: Brahms, Nabokov, Obama, Thomas Jefferson, Malala Yousafzai. And yet there they all are. Also, what of WNYC’s own reporting that before the sexual harassment charges publically surfaced, Hockenberry “missed interviews, arrived unprepared, and even fell asleep on the job”? Those acts remain unaddressed. He does tell us however that his 1974 performance as Zorba the Greek on the high school stage is still talked about in his hometown.

The essay is, in a word, ridiculous. It misses the point, as much as any attempt at rehabilitation ever could, and therefore achieves the opposite of its intention. It is a cri de coeur of heartlessness. It is a think piece by a man who is baffled as to what issue he needs to think about. It is logorrhea as apologia. It is the most embarrassing work I have ever read written by someone whose work I once respected. And I’ve read late Seymour Hersh.

It is easy to dismiss the apologies, or explanations, by the men named as harassers during the time of #MeToo as insufficient, or insincere-seeming. Sometimes these apologies are impossible to hear without the details of the transgression ringing in your ears. Harassers have been criticized if they name their victims and criticized if they don’t. Many members of the audience are simply not yet at the forgiveness stage. That said, the problem with this essay is not that it fails to walk the narrow ledge that the harasser has constructed for himself. The Hockenberry essay fails completely and erases any doubt that even a charitable reader like me might have had about the ego, intention, or basic good sense of the man.

The essay’s first paragraph begins to build a résumé and mount a defense. Sentence two reads:

You likely know that I use a wheelchair because of a 1976 car accident and the resultant spinal cord injury, received in the twilight of adolescence at age nineteen.

Sentence 4 reads:

Possibly you are aware of me as the father of five children: two sets of twins—three girls and a boy, aged twenty and seventeen—and another eight-year-old boy.

Hockenberry invokes his children no fewer than seven times in the essay, alternatively bragging about the piano-playing prowess of his sons and revealing that his older children, when engaging in sexual encounters, are themselves confused by standards of consent.

Did I actually say yes to that? Did you say thank you? What shade of gray was that? This agony of sexual indecision and bewilderment is how my kids and their peers often describe their sexual experiences.

“Hey, thanks for mentioning that, Dad!”

Hockenberry’s physical disability is, understandably, central to his identity, and over the years, he’s done a great job weaving that fact into his journalism and even performing a one-man off-Broadway show called Spoke Man. In this essay, however, the chair is used to excuse and deflect, like Lance Armstrong used his battle with cancer as a cudgel and as armor.

Over and over, Hockenberry comes back to the fact that he’s disabled, emphasizing that he is “a paraplegic man whose total lack of sensation” renders him incapable of experiencing physical pleasure as an able-bodied person would. At one juncture, he puts forward an image of himself as a “penis-less paraplegic.” The intention is clearly to neuter himself in the reader’s mind, and therefore to render himself harmless. If he is impotent, how can his acts have been perceived as having such potency? It’s a conscious misrepresentation of the nature of harassment, which can be used to belittle and control others as much as to physically gratify the harasser.

Hockenberry advances multiple defenses, but then, caveman-lawyer-like, retreats via see-though rhetoric. He writes:

Being a misguided romantic, or being born at the wrong time, or taking the wrong cues from the sexual revolution of the Sixties, or having a disability that leaves one impotent at the age of nineteen—none of this is a justification for offensive behavior toward women.

They don’t justify offensive behavior, yet he feels they justify a mention. The argument that he was born at the wrong time, that time being the ’60s, is a sad echo of Harvey Weinstein’s excuse that he was an “old dinosaur.”

When will we see a generation of offenders who are unable to blame their milieu? Hockenberry came of age in the ’60s. But the ’70s were a more libidinous bacchanalia, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t rule on a sexual harassment case until more than halfway through the ’80s; the ’90s saw the high-tech, mass-media sexual harassment of Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky. I guess just now we’re birthing the first children who, upon their arrival into adulthood, won’t be able to use the generational defense.

But it is the broad claim of “romanticism” that gets the most thorough workout from Hockenberry. Romance, or a variation on the word, appears 30 times in the essay; harassment, or a variant, appears three times—twice in Hockenberry’s own words and once in a footnote where Harper’s editors confirm that Hockenberry had been “officially reported for sexual harassment.”

Hockenberry’s crusade on behalf of “romance” includes a bromide against blow jobs and a critique of the existence of a Medium article on cunnilingus. Just when you thought he might stand athwart Cole Porter and insist, “NO! A glimpse of stocking is still something shocking,” he actually goes even further. Casting about for an embodiment of the ideal level of feminist consciousness, Hockenberry points to the more progressive elements within the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I found the women described in Reading Lolita in Tehran refreshing pioneers of intellectual freedom and stewards of reinvention in their potentially unshackled nation. Whereas the women in my presumably unshackled America seem to be more like the religious police of Iran in ways that they themselves cannot see, or refuse to see, right now.

They cannot see, but Hockenberry can; such is the benefit of distance, as dictated by HR policy.

Hockenberry uses four paragraphs to tell us he once toyed with the idea of doing a piece for ABC News about the feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin but didn’t. This, as much as anything could, sets the table for what Hockenberry judges to be supporting evidence for his own victimization. Yes, here comes the detailed discussion of what exactly a penis does during intercourse:

his penis is surrounded by strong muscles that contract like a fist shutting tight and release with a force that pushes hard on the tender thing, always so vulnerable no matter how hard.

That, dear reader, is the money shot: an ejaculation of self-pity. For all of Hockenberry’s endless ramblings about romanticism, he seems not to grasp a key element contributing to his oft-mentioned employment and financial difficulties. It is this: Even if there were zero sexual element to his misdeeds, even if no woman ever was made to feel uncomfortable or demeaned in a way that was sexually inappropriate, even if Hockenberry never mentioned anything that anyone ever interpreted to be sleazy when it was meant to be romantic—even if all that were true, we cannot ignore the fact that he is a horrible bully. Hockenberry is the kind of person whom subordinates, co-workers, and even supervisors simply do not want to be around. A former employee of Hockenberry’s WNYC show told me that Hockenberry was frequently excluded from edit meetings because he was so abusive and deleterious to the production of the show. Think of this: the staff of a radio program, a deeply collaborative exercise, shutting out the host because he was such an asshole.

For almost a decade, Hockenberry was one of the highest paid employees at WNYC, which pays its top employees well. Public filings reveal salaries and benefits of well over $300,000 in salary, and bonuses most years, with his compensation topping $400,000 in recent years.

To be clear, it’s expensive to live in New York, raise five children (did he mention the five children?), and incur the added expenses of having a disability. This isn’t Les Moonves money we’re talking about. I do not begrudge the man, who was an excellent journalist for many years, a living. So I have some advice that Hockenberry didn’t ask for. Take it in the spirit of comments to female employees that they never asked for. If you really want to rehab your name, image, and marketability, maybe you should drop the pitiable first-person essay. It is not your friend. You’re a journalist. Unlike a studio executive, comic, or actor, you do not need anyone else’s approval to get out there and do your job—in fact, your line of work is constitutionally protected. Setting aside the question of whether you deserve to have the public’s trust in you restored, it seems likely that the only practical route to absolution is to put your head down and work. You probably won’t get paid for your initial efforts, but you could post all your stories publicly, and perhaps eventually demonstrate to the world that you still have value as a professional. Otherwise this caterwauling, solipsistic, tendentious argument for leniency won’t simply document your exile—it will cement it.

Mike Pesca was an employee of WNYC from 1996–2002, but his time did not overlap with Hockenberry’s.