By coincidence, my travel schedule this month took me on consecutive weekends to two universities with exhibits honoring Walter Cronkite.
My family did not have a television when Cronkite made his debut as CBS anchor in 1962. One of the biggest stories of his career — the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy — finally made Mom and Dad cave and buy our first “idiot box” (Mom called it that before we got one and through the years as she became a loyal watcher). So of course, we missed Cronkite’s announcement of Kennedy’s death:
The Cronkite exhibits at Missouri Western State University and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University both take note of the importance of the Kennedy coverage in the anchor’s career:
The two universities have different connections to the famed journalist, who actually attended the University of Texas, but left after two years and didn’t graduate. MWSU is in St. Joseph, Mo., Cronkite’s birthplace. President Robert Vartabedian is a Cronkite buff who led efforts to build the Walter Cronkite Memorial, dedicated last year.
On Monday, Nov. 3, I was a panelist for the Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics & Integrity, part of the university’s efforts to honor St. Joe’s native son.
ASU’s school of journalism was named for Cronkite in 1984 (after a friend asked Cronkite to help the program). ASU’s memorial to the giant of broadcast journalism is primarily its growth into one of the nation’s leading journalism schools. But on the second floor of its building in downtown Phoenix, a Cronkite Gallery presents a mix of journalism artifacts unrelated to Cronkite with some exhibits focusing on him. I had missed the gallery on earlier visits to Arizona State’s downtown Phoenix campus. I’d visited various offices, classrooms and conference rooms, but not the collection of journalism memorabilia.
The Cronkite Memorial in St. Joe would be harder to miss. As you approach Spratt Hall, large banners identify it as the home of the Cronkite Memorial. As you step inside the building’s door, a display of TV screens on the atrium wall leaves no doubt.
The atrium is a mini-museum about the broadcaster’s career. One wall is a timeline:
Murals about Cronkite’s role in covering space travel cover the opposite walls between the first and second floors.
Each collection also includes an exhibit focused on space exploration and Cronkite’s enthusiasm for it.
Special displays honor Cronkite’s work covering wars, first as a war correspondent in World War II.
Cronkite won enough Emmys for each of the exhibits to display one:
A fun aspect of the Cronkite Memorial is the collection of caricatures by Al Hirschfeld, a friend of Cronkite’s.
Cronkite was one of the biggest figures of journalism in my lifetime. Certainly none of the TV news stars since has achieved his stature, as big as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Barbara Walters were on the traditional networks. The cable networks haven’t produce a star approaching Cronkite’s importance.
As a longtime print journalist, I’d like to argue that Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Abe Rosenthal, Ellen Goodman, Leonard Pitts, Seymour Hersh, Neil Sheehan, Edna Buchanan, Richard Ben Cramer, Mike Royko, Carol Guzy, Nick Ut, Jim Risser or someone was bigger than Cronkite. And maybe some or all of them, and more, were better journalists. But bigger? I don’t think I could make that case.
I was always a little annoyed with his signature line, “That’s the way it is.” It always came across to me as pompous. If I had ever heard him confess that it was an aspiration, not a boast, I might have liked it. But the truth is that we do our best, but even when we tell our stories accurately, the world we cover is too complex suggest that a half-hour newscast (minus commercial time) tells “the way it is.” Every single day of his career, even on “slow” news days, Cronkite knew of significant news that didn’t make the newscast. Just like the inaccurate boast that the New York Times is “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” Cronkite’s line said more about arrogance than it did about the news report.
But I look past the Times’ slogan and recognize it as the pinnacle of American journalism. And I can look past his pompous sign-off and recognize Walter Cronkite as the giant of American journalism that he is. Especially after wandering through these two exhibits that remind me of the momentous history he covered and watch and hear his authoritative reports about those historic events.
I’m glad these universities are honoring his work and his contributions to journalism.