Walter Cronkite and ASU

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Chris Callahan, Dean of ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, shares his memories of the School’s namesake, Walter Cronkite. Learn more about Cronkite’s connection to journalism at ASU.

Ted Simons: A series of events honoring the late Walter Cronkite will be held over the next month at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Tomorrow, students get to record their thoughts about Cronkite's legacy, just part of a full afternoon and evening of events. Earlier I spoke with Christopher Callahan, the Dean of the Cronkite School about his memories of Walter Cronkite and Cronkite's legacy at ASU. 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. He was 92 years old but you're never prepared to lose somebody who is as important to the country and then to have a particular importance to the region and certainly to ASU as Walter.

Ted Simons: Your personal relationship with Walter Cronkite, talk to us about that.

Chris Callahan: Very special to me. I feel like 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 would come out and we would talk about our two passions -- the news and the Cronkite School.

Ted Simons: You had a point where you got to go through some of his memorabilia.

Chris Callahan: I called him and we had the Jack and Marjorie Clifford gallery which has news memorabilia and I asked him if he could have some of his artifacts and he said, come to my office and take what you want.

Ted Simons: We're seeing some of those artifacts right there. We all think we know Walter Cronkite. He was in our living rooms for generations. But what kind of guy was he?

Chris Callahan: He was a genuine down to earth guy. This I didn't expect because he's Walter Cronkite, an iconic figure. When I first met him, he's one of the most humble and regular people I've had the pleasure to know.

Ted Simons: Was he -- 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 actually 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. 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 would have these 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: We have a little bit of a story as to why Walter Cronkite put his name to the mass communications department at ASU at the time. But why do you think, A, he did it, he could have done it, he had a lot of friends and a lot of favors, I'm sure. Why here? And talk to us about that relationship, how it grew over the years.

Chris Callahan: Sure, and Walter would say they were the first to ask. And in typical reporting fashion, being first matters a lot. And that was part of it but he had a close relationship with the late Tom Chauncey. And Tom Chauncey, the second, who is still a supporter of the Cronkite school. And it was through that relationship that Walter did us the honor of giving his name for the school.

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

Chris Callahan: He never did, although during his last visit, at the Jane Pauley luncheon in 2007, he was -- luncheon. After the luncheon, he said, let's go and see the building. Right now? Right now. It's your building, let's go. We jumped in the car and went to downtown Phoenix and we did a visual tour, if you will, of the building and he was so genuinely excited about everything that was happening.

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

Chris Callahan: Very much so. Although broadly. At the beginning, his one rule was the word journalism had to be in the school. And you would think of course. But that's not the case in many places. Many schools are much more mass communication oriented and Walter wanted a hands-on, practical liberal arts education for his students.

Ted Simons: And how much interaction did he have with the school? After the name got there, did he keep in contact?

Chris Callahan: In a lot of cases, the school is named after somebody and that's it. In fact, that relationship grew over time and the school was put on the national map in '84 when it was named after Walter, but through Walter's work with the faculty and students and leadership, it grew to a premiere school in the country.

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

Chris Callahan: Very much so. He was a futurist, loved technology. Always looking to the future and the things that technology brought to the media, he was very excited about. He was not excited about some of the things that have happened in this new 24/7 news cycle culture.

Ted Simons: Like what?

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

Ted Simons: And 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.

Chris Callahan: He's the subject lesson every day because we built our curriculum around his values of accuracy and objectivity and fairness at the highest levels and so he lives in that building in every classroom and every 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 -- it was mass communications department at the time. To where it is now, which is a top-notch facility.

Chris Callahan: Yeah, certainly, in '84, that simple, making that change by having Walter's name on it made a dramatic difference and took what it was at the time a solid regional program and gave it national prominence because of the name. And through a lot of people's work and through Walter's it grew where today we have a lot of wonderfully innovative digital programs focusing on the future of journalism and that hands-on approach that Walter thought was so important.

Ted Simons: He would be the first to say that journalism is hurting in a variety of ways. How are you and the school addressing that? Journalism goes on and right now, it's going on a bumpy road.

Chris Callahan: Absolutely, we're trying to do a two-prong approach. Holding the great values of traditional journalism that Walter exemplified for so long and trying to translate that into the future. 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, newspaper journalist. It was very segmented. What we're trying to do is teach our students how to communicate across all platforms.

Ted Simons: Indeed, and I think he would appreciate that very much because the stereotypical news anchor who can't write -- can't do that anymore?

Chris Callahan: That's right. Walter would describe himself as an old wires 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 under attack and that's what we really need to focus on. Changing the business model. What's worked well for decades does not now. 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 and figure out ways for news companies to survive economically.

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

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