Walter Cronkite’s Legacy

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Christopher Callahan, Dean of ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, reflects on the career of the legendary newsman.

Ted Simons: Tonight on "Horizon" -- We lost a news legend last week. Learn about Walter Cronkite's legacy here in the valley. And it's the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. We'll reflect on how it changed our lives and we'll look ahead at the future of space exploration. That's next on "Horizon."

¬¬Announcer: "Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

CBS Announcer: This is the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite. This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Walter Cronkite: This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News. For me its a moment I've long planned, but nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades we've been meeting like this in the evenings and I'll miss that.

Ted Simons: And Walter Cronkite will be missed by millions of Americans. Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Although Walter Cronkite is gone, his legacy lives at the school named for him -- the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. The school was named after Cronkite in 1984 as a favor to a friend, the late Tom Chauncey, owner of radio and television stations in the valley and a member of the CBS board of directors. A.S.U. flags at all the university's campuses were flown at half staff today in honor of Walter Cronkite. Here now to talk about the Cronkite legacy at A.S.U. is the dean of the journalism school, Chris Callahan. Chris, it's good to see you. Thanks for joining us. Not a surprise, but still a shock?

Chris Callahan: It's one of those things, Ted, that obviously, Walter had been in failing health the last few months. He was 92 years old. But you're never prepared to lose somebody who was as important to the country and then has a particular importance to the region and certainly to A.S.U., as Walter.

Ted Simons: Your personal relationship.

Chris Callahan: It was very special to me. I feel extremely blessed. In four years, we got to be very good friends and when I would go to New York, we would have dinner and he'd come out and spend a lot of time and talk about our passions -- the news and the Cronkite school.

Ted Simons: I know you got to the point where you had a chance to go through some of his memorabilia.

Chris Callahan: That's right. I had called him about a year ago when we were preparing to move into the new building and we have the gallery that has news memorabilia and I asked Walter, could we have some of your artifacts? He said, come to my office and take whatever you want.

Ted Simons: And we're seeing some of those artifacts right there. We all think we know Walter Cronkite, he was in our living rooms for a generation. But knowing him the way you do, what kind of guy was he?

Chris Callahan: He was a genuine, down-to-earth guy. I didn't expect -- he's Walter Cronkite, this iconic figure. And when I first met him and throughout our entire relationship, he was one of the most humble, regular people that I've ever had the pleasure to know.

Ted Simons: Was he just -- was it all -- did he feel like -- did you feel like you knew him instantly or was there a getting acquainted period?

Chris Callahan: It was very hard because of who he is. He was incredibly generous. The first time I heard from him, he had left a voicemail on my phone when I first took the job, the first day and my wife said there's a phone message from Walter Cronkite. Sure, one of my friends, you know. But, of course, it was from him, and he was generous in his comments and how excited he was about me coming to his school and the relationship grew from there. But I never quite got past -- you know, you have deep conversations with him about the news and about the future and every once in a while I would drift back to being a 10-year-old boy sitting in my parents' living room watching Walter Cronkite.

Ted Simons: It's hard to get past that. We have a little bit of a story as to why Walter Cronkite put his name to the mass communication department at A.S.U. at the time, but why do you think, A, he did it? I mean, he had a lot of friends and favors, I'm sure. Why here? And talk to us about that relationship and how it grew over the years.

Chris Callahan: Sure, and Walter would tell the story simply; they were the first to ask. And in typical reporting fashion, being first matters a lot. And that was actually part of it, but he had a very, very close relationship with the late Tom Chauncey who owned the CBS station and his son, who is still a great supporter of the school and it was through that relationship that Walter did us the honor of giving us the name for the school.

Ted Simons: And he came out for the groundbreaking. Never had the chance to see the building completed, though.

Chris Callahan: He never did, but during the last visit at the Jane Pauley luncheon, he was so excited about everything going on, he said, let's go see the building. Right now? Right now. It's your building, so let's go. And our architects happened to be there and we jumped in the car and went to downtown Phoenix and we did a visual tour and he was so excited about everything that was happening.

Ted Simons: And obviously, the excitement was there, and he was interested. What did he expect from A.S.U., from the journalism department, the school with his name on it? Did he give expectations?

Chris Callahan: Very much so. Although very broadly. At the beginning, his one rule was the word "journalism" had to be in the school. And your viewers might think, of course, it's going to be in the name of a journalism school. That's not the case in many places. Many are much more theoretical and Walter wanted a practical, broad-based education for his students.

Ted Simons: And with that in mind, how much interaction did he have with the school after the name got there and did he still keep in contact?

Chris Callahan: It's interesting, a lot of these days, the school is named after somebody and that's it. The relationship grew over time and -- and the school was put on the national map in '84 when it was named after Walter, but through his work with the faculty and students and leadership, it really grew into one of the premiere schools in the country.

Ted Simons: And he was involved in curriculum. To that end, obviously, a journalist steeped in old journalism traditions and never around for the twittering and all of that. Was he open to new ways of journalism?

Chris Callahan: Very much so. He loved technology. He was a futurist and always looking to the future. And I think that technology brought to the media, he was excited about. He was not happy about the things that have happened in the 24/7 news culture.

Ted Simons: Like what?

Chris Callahan: The loud talking heads on television. Celebrity-based journalism, he found that very distasteful. He wanted -- he was a great advocate of great journalism, of accuracy and objectivity and thoroughness. And that is, of course, what we try to do at the Cronkite School.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, what can students learn from a Walter Cronkite? There's so many things you can learn at the journalism school, Walter Cronkite becomes today's subject lesson. What do you learn?

Chris Callahan: We built our curriculum around Walter's values of accuracy and objectivity and fairness at the highest levels so he lives in that building in every classroom and student and professor every day.

Ted Simons: The program, I know you haven't been there for the 25 years, but can you tell us how it's changed over the years? From the time that Walter said, all right. I'll put my name on that school out there. And it wasn't even -- to where it is now -- a topnotch facility.

Chris Callahan: Certainly. In '84, that simple -- making that change by having Walter's name on it made a dramatic difference and took a solid regional program and gave it national prominence. Through a lot of people's work and Walter's, it grew to where today we have a lot of innovative digital programs that are focusing on the future of journalism, and that hands-on approach that Walter thought was so important.

Ted Simons: And I know that Walter Cronkite would be the first to say that the journalism business is hurting in a variety of ways. How are you and the school addressing that to students -- a little bit away from Walter Cronkite here. But the fact is journalism goes on and right now, it's a bumpy road.

Chris Callahan: Absolutely. We're doing a two-pronged approach. Holding the great values that Walter exemplified so well and then translating that into the future. New distribution models, how do you get out information in a digital age on multiple platforms, and keeping students flexible. In the old days, you were a broadcast journalist, a newspaper journalist. It was segmented. What we're trying to do is teaching how to communicate across all of these platforms.

Ted Simons: I think he would appreciate that very much because the stereotypical person who can't write, you can't do that anymore, can you?

Chris Callahan: And Walter would describe himself as an old newspaper guy. A wire service guy.

Ted Simons: Journalism, is it healthier now than it was when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America and used to get ratings and shares that management only dreams of now? Is it healthier now with all of those options?

Chris Callahan: Certainly, the business is not healthier now. The business model is really under attack and that's what we need to focus on, changing the business model. What's worked well for decades does not now and that's something we need to change. I think it has the potential of being better than it ever was because there's all of these different voices and different ways to communicate. We need to harness that and figure out ways for news companies to survive economically.

Ted Simons: How is the Cronkite school remembering Walter Cronkite?

Chris Callahan: This week, we're playing around the clock tribute to him on the second floor of the Cronkite building and opening up our Clifford gallery, which has a lot of his memorabilia and all sorts of wonderful things and then just in the process of planning a memorial tribute, sometime in September.

Ted Simons: Thank you so much. It feels like we all lost a little bit of our lives with Walter Cronkite. Certainly memories and a friend, even though most of us never came close to the man. You did. He was a friend and we thank you for sharing your memories.

Chris Callahan: Thanks for having me, Ted.

Christopher Callahan:Dean, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University;

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