Hockenberry blasts 'Dateline'

Ex-correspondent says NBC derailed al-Qaida story

A former "Dateline NBC" correspondent claims that the network in the aftermath of Sept. 11 diverted him from reporting on al-Qaida and instead wanted him to follow around the country's "forgotten heroes," firefighters.

John Hockenberry, who was laid off from "Dateline" in early 2005, wrote in this month's Technology Review that on the Sunday after the September 2001 attacks he was pitching stories on the origins of al-Qaida and Islamic fundamentalism. He claimed that then-NBC programming chief Jeff Zucker, who came into a meeting Hockenberry was having with "Dateline" executive producer David Corvo, said "Dateline" should instead focus on the firefighters and perhaps ride along with them a la "Cops," the Fox reality series.

Zucker said "that he had no time for any subtitled interviews with jihadists raging about Palestine," Hockenberry said.

NBC News wasn't impressed by this or any of Hockenberry's other claims.

"It's unfortunate that John Hockenberry seems to be so far out of touch with reality," an NBC spokeperson said. "The comments are so utterly absurd, we will have no further comment." Another NBC executive said it didn't sound like Zucker, who was promoted out of the news division and was at one time "Today" executive producer.

Hockenberry is a distinguished fellow at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. But for more than 20 years, he was a broadcast journalist working at National Public Radio, ABC News and from 1996-2005, a correspondent at "Dateline." Hockenberry's blistering article trained much of its fire on the controversial NBC newsmagazine, which has been criticized for its "To Catch a Predator" series — a "highly rated pile of programming debris," in Hockenberry's words.

Another bombshell is Hockenberry's claims that General Electric, NBC's parent company, discouraged him from talking to the Bin Laden family about their estranged family member. Hockenberry asked GE, which does business with the Bin Laden family company, to help him get in contact with them. Instead, a PR executive called Hockenberry's hotel room in Saudi Arabia and read a statement about how GE didn't see its "valuable business relationship" with the Bin Laden Group as having anything to do with "Dateline."

In another instance, Hockenberry claimed a story he did about a Weather Underground member wouldn't appear on the Sunday edition of "Dateline" unless its lead-out, the 1960s family drama "American Dreams," did a show about "protesters or something." And for another story on the abuse of mentally ill inmates, Hockenberry was told by a producer that video of a fatal attack on a prisoner by guards wasn't enough.

The article also recalls "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart's asking whether Hockenberry's nine years at "Dateline" begins "to rot you from the inside." Hockenberry wrote that he didn't answer Stewart "possibly because it was the one I had been asking myself for most of those nine years. But the answer is that I managed not to rot."
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