July 20, 2009

Cronkite School honors namesake

Posted: July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite, who lent his name to ASU’s journalism school in 1984, died last week at his New York home. The legendary news anchor was 92.

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University mourned the passing of its namesake with a special Web tribute to Cronkite that includes video, photos and tributes from students, faculty, friends and admirers. The site can be accessed at cronkite.asu.edu/rememberingcronkite.

Known as the “most trusted man in America,” Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. He reported on the pivotal stories of the era – the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the battles over civil rights, the Vietnam War, the Apollo moon landings and the Watergate scandal. 

“Walter Cronkite's legacy will be experienced for years to come through the ASU school that bears his name,” says ASU President Michael M. Crow. “Students who learn the craft of journalism at the university are held to the same basic tenets that Cronkite exemplified throughout his career – accuracy, timeliness and fairness.”

Christopher Callahan, dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says Cronkite’s contribution to his profession, the university and the school is immeasurable.

“Walter Cronkite was and will always be journalism’s gold standard … We lost not only a great journalist, but a great man and a dear friend,” Callahan says.

In honor of Cronkite, flags all four ASU’s campuses were flown at half staff during the week following his death. The Cronkite School plans a public tribute to Cronkite in September at the school’s new facility in downtown Phoenix.

Cronkite was intimately involved with ASU, advising the journalism school’s leadership, meeting with students and faculty and traveling to Arizona each year to personally give the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism to a media leader. The award is one of the most coveted in American journalism today. Past recipients include Jim Lehrer, Robert MacNeil, Jane Pauley, Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward and Helen Thomas.

This year’s recipient is Brian Williams, who will receive the 26th Cronkite Award at a luncheon ceremony Nov. 18 at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel.

For many years, Cronkite presented the award himself and always made time to visit the school, speaking to classes and granting interviews to eager student journalists. 

“One of the great pleasures in my life has been watching Walter together with his students. Though separated by generations, the bonds were deep and real,” Callahan says.

Josh Davis, a 2004 Cronkite graduate, first interviewed Cronkite when he was a freshman, and Cronkite granted repeat interviews up until the time Davis graduated.

“Walter Cronkite changed the course of my young career when he agreed to sit down with me for a 15-minute interview during my freshman year at Arizona State,” Davis says. “I was just starting out, looking to make a splash, and he was happy to oblige.

“It turned into a 40-minute chat highlighting just some of the momentous moments of his career. He was candid, engaged and spirited, answering most questions with a twinkle in his eye, seeming to enjoy the fact a student who was born the year after he left the CBS Evening News was so interested. “

Davis, who is now a reporter for WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., said he still keeps an autographed picture of Cronkite on his desk. “It helps me remember the great man who stood for something, who reported everything and who meant so much to so many people,” he says.

Cronkite graduate Jake Geller met Cronkite in 2002 during a question-and-answer session with students at the school.

“At the time, the Bush administration was building a case for the war in Iraq and Cronkite … was admonishing the press to be more skeptical in their reporting,” Geller says. “It turns out that he was ultimately right. He was the conscience of the media, which should have listened more to the wisdom of their elder statesman.”

Cronkite became part of the school when Tom Chauncey, the longtime owner of the CBS affiliate in Phoenix and a leading supporter of journalism education, asked his old friend if he would allow the school to take his name. That marked the beginning of 25-year relationship that helped boost the school to national prominence.

“Before he lent his name to the college, it was a solid regional journalism program,” Callahan says. “Once Mr. Cronkite gave us his official endorsement we became a national presence almost overnight.”

Cronkite students consistently win national awards for excellence, including an unbroken string of top 10 finishes since 2002 in the Hearst Journalism Awards Program, known as the Pulitzer Prizes of college journalism. Students have finished first in the Hearst Awards in two of the past three years and first in the national Society of Professional Journalists Awards for the past four years. 

Last year the Cronkite School moved from the Tempe campus into a six-story, 223,000-square-foot journalism education complex on the Downtown Phoenix Campus. During Cronkite’s last visit to the school, in November of 2007, he visited the construction site.

Callahan remembers him being as excited as a kid over the new building. Cronkite’s health in recent months had prevented him from traveling and he did not have a chance to see the completed building, although he kept up with its progress through photos, video and calls, Callahan said. 

The $71 million building is considered to be one of the best journalism facilities in the country, with state-of-the-art technology for digital media teaching. It houses the Donald M. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, the Carnegie-Knight News21 Journalism Initiative, Cronkite News Service, the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Cronkite NewsWatch and the New Media Innovation Lab.

It also has added new faculty, including former CNN anchor Aaron Brown, the first Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism, and former Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez, the first Carnegie Professor of Journalism. 

“Walter Cronkite was an inspiration and role model for so many us in the journalism profession,” Rodriguez says. “After a long career in newspapers, it gave me great pride to start a new profession by joining the faculty of an institution named the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. His name inspires us to teach the qualities for which he stood: integrity, dignity and professionalism. We'll do our best to keep those alive.”