2012 Cronkite Award: Bob Costas

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Each year, ASU’s Cronkite School for Journalism and Mass Communication recognizes a leading journalist with the Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. This year’s award-winner is NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. Hear what Costas had to say when he accepted the award at a luncheon in downtown Phoenix.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Each year ASU's Cronkite school of journalism and mass communication recognizes a journalist. This year's award went to Bob Costas who has been named sportscaster the year a record eight times. Costas is host of NBC's football night in America. He hosted the network's primetime coverage of the Olympics and continues to cover everything from horse racing to major league baseball. Costas is one of the most familiar faces in broadcasting, but sometimes you wouldn't know it or so he said during his October 30th acceptance speech at the Cronkite award luncheon in downtown Phoenix.
Bob Costas: sometimes people bring you to a microphone when you have been on the air as long as I have and they say, well, here's someone who needs no introduction. And you might think that would be true, but my own experience tells me otherwise. I'll be walking down the street and someone will go, hey, good to see you, Mr. Musberger. I just wave back. I'm trying to get from point A to point B. I'll be walking off a plane, pilot standing in the cockpit. Thanks for flying with us, Marv. [laughter] Why do I need to make an issue of it? I just say yes, an enjoyable flight. Thank you. Just move on. But truly, the most interesting one occurred a few years ago. I'm walking across the street and I have a witness, and I'm walking across the street, and a young guy about 25, 26 years old comes up to me, it's in New York, greets me at the corner and I can see he's making a beeline for me, big smile on his face, he says Bryant, Bryant, I love ya! and I said to him, this is getting so old. I'm Greg Gumbel, not Bryant Gumbel. I know my brother is more famous than me, but can't I get a little respect? And without missing a beat, the guy says, oh, Greg, I love you too. Whatever works. And one thing for sure even in a world of fractiionalized viewership and everybody going off in their own direction to their own niche programming, one thing that continues to cut through and reach everybody of all ages and backgrounds appears to be big time sports. Big sports events. So you never know who is watching, and you never know who might in his or her own way be a fan of yours. Some years ago I'm having a late dinner in little Italy in New York with some people from St. Louis who had come to New York to watch Missouri play Syracuse at Madison square garden. So after the game they say to me, where should we go for dinner? You know the town. It was very late on a week night in the middle of winter. I took them to this place in little Italy. There we sat and there were only a couple of tables occupied as the clock moved toward midnight. I look up, and who was walking in out of the snowy night and into the restaurant but John Gotti. [laughter] The maitre d', I later found out he was a regular -- the maitre d'runs over and Gotti was every inch the dapper Don. $2,000 overcoat, Perfectly quaffed, pinky ring Areal presence surrounded by a cup couple of his henchmen. The maitre d' takes his coat as if it were the cape of a prince and leads him to a table. The people from Missouri begin to buzz and one lady said, should we leave? I said, no, unless you have done business with Mr. Gotti, somehow have crossed Mr. Gotti, you are now in the safest place in all of New York, so enjoy the rigatoni. Couple minutes go by, and the maitre d' says to me, Mr. Costas, Mr. Gotti would like to buy you a drink. I'm thinking by this point we already probably had enough to drink. On the other hand I put this in the category of an offer you could not refuse. So I say, all right, you can bring us another bottle of Chianti. When they do and when the maitre d'pours me a glass I look over and I say, Mr. Gotti, thank you. He says, Bob, I like your work. What am I supposed to say? I like your work too? Nice rub-out at sparks steakhouse? Highly efficient? Instead I just say, thank you, Mr. Gotti. Have a nice evening. He turns to his henchman he says, Bob Costas, sportscaster. I turned to the people from St. Louis, I say, John Gotti, murderer. You just don't know. There's no way to know. I looked at this retrospective including the first appearance in December of 1979, covering Sumo wrestling on NBC's sports world. A sport I was uniquely suited to do, and reminds me of how long I have been there, and yet people will come up to me and they will say, I have been watching you all my life. How old are you now, 42? The math doesn't work, but it connects to my earliest experiences at NBC. Don Omeyer ran the sports department and he was an impressive, charismatic man. He had worked at ABC with ruinar ledge on the Olympics, on Monday night football. He calls me into his office after I'd been there about three months and says, you know, you're a promising young man. We think you have a promising future here. Let me ask you something. How old are you? I said I'm 27, sir. He said, God damn it, you look like you're 14. Let me ask you something. How much older do you think you would look if you grew a beard? He was just grasping at straws. I said five years at least. He said really? I said, yeah, that's how long it would take to grow it. So that idea went out the window pretty quickly. Before we get to what will pass for the substance of my remarks, it's more than a little bit humbling when I see the list of luminaries who have received this award and I can only conclude as you approach 30 of them that you have run out of truly worthy candidates and eventually got to my name on the list, some of what I have done may connect to this. On the other hand, I have spent a lot of time sitting next to Bob Uecker in a baseball booth and I never thought that somehow that would lead to the Walter Cronkite award. I remember once on the air Uecker, who resides here in this area during the baseball off season when he isn't doing the Milwaukee Brewers games, in fact I invited him here to the luncheon, but he's out of town, I asked Uecker how it was that he came to enter professional baseball. He grew up in Wisconsin, and a scout for the then Milwaukee Braves came to the Uecker family home to tell his parents that they were interested in Uecker, who of course would go on to an illustrious career in which he hit exactly 200 with 14 big league homers with six different teams. The scout sat around the kitchen table with his parents and said, we would like to sign your son for $5,000. And Uecker's father said, this family doesn't have that kind of money. [laughter] I was broadcasting the 1995 world series. Uecker on my left, Joe Morgan on my right. You talk about a contrast, one man who made a career out of talking about his abject futility and the other a first ballot hall of famer, two-time MVP, member of one of the great teams in baseball history, the Cincinnati Reds big red machine. Morgan talks about his world series experiences, talking about sparky Anderson, Pete rose, Johnny Bench. Finally when he's finished, I turn to Uecker, and I have to be polite, I say, you did you ever play in the world series? He says, well, I was with the Cardinals in '64 but when we met the Yankees in the series I was on the disabled list. I said, what was wrong with you? He said, I had hepatitis. I said, how did you get that? He said, the trainer injected me with it. [laughter] Which in fact I have a little bit of a cold. I'm not weeping at the memory. That may account for why the Cardinals won that world series over the Yankees. All right, last thing before we move on to the next segment, people invariably, because of my involvement in moments like this it's striking to me that I'm standing here to receive this award, but much of my career has centered around moments like this. People always ask sports announcers, they always ask, what's the most embarrassing thing, the goofiest thing, that ever happened on the air? I guess all broadcasters get this but sports announcers more so than others because so much of what we do is live and there's no script. For better or worse, good, bad or indifferent, you can't pull it back, there's no editing, no eraser. It's out there. So I'm a young broadcaster in St. Louis, and I'm hanging around as much as I can the Cardinals broadcast booth to be somewhere close to Jack Buck, the legendary voice of the Cardinals and the dad of Joe buck, who now does all the big sports events on fox TV. So the Cardinals are playing an afternoon game against the Cubs in 1979. It happens to be national dairy day at the ballpark. This as everyone knows is one of your major promotional days. Fans flock from neighboring states for the colorful festivities. So the game begins after they have the cow milking contest or whatever you do before national dairy day at the ballpark. And I'm standing in the back of the booth in St. Louis kind of in an elevated area a few steps behind the broadcasters. As you looked out toward the field Jack Buck was on the left in the middle was Mike Shannon, who still broadcast their games and played on their pennant winning teams in the '60s, and on the right was an announcer named Bob star. We're bottom of the 4th, no score. Ken Reeves will lead the inning off for the Cardinals. Third baseman singled to left, his first time up. Buck is calling the game. Then the president of the national dairy council appears in the booth. Buck was the sort of announcer who liked to schmooze with a visitor if a game was moving slowly, so he beckons the guy down. 0-1. He says to the guy, have you enjoyed your time in St. Louis? He says, oh, yeah, it's been great. We don't see much of the national league since the Braves went to Atlanta up in Wisconsin. Buck says, fine, dropped my name at your restaurant you'll get a good seat. One up, one down in the cardinal 4th. As the much that dairy council rises from his seat and Keith Hernandez rises, we notice he's accompanied by a woman who is billed as miss cheesecake. [laughter] She was a representative of the national dairy council, kind of a good will ambassador, and she was actually wearing a white one piece bathing suit and high heels and a sash that went across her which instead of saying miss Wisconsin said miss cheesecake. Curve in the dirt, 1-0 to Hernandez as miss cheesecake comes sashaying down the steps from the back of the booth, bringing with her a good will offering from the national dairy council. Three little boxes of cheesecake. Lovely individual cheesecakes, one for each broadcaster. She places one in front of Buck, one in front of Shannon, and a third in front of Star. Hernandez pops to Beckert. Two down, nobody on for the Cardinals bottom of the fourth. As Ted Simmons makes his way toward the plate and as miss cheesecake makes her way toward the back of the booth, Buck leans across Shannon, eyes star, and says, so Bob, what do you think of miss cheesecake? And star, who was apparently distracted, thinks he said what do you think of this cheesecake. Yes. And he says, I'll tell you, Jack. I would like to try a piece of that right now. [laughter] It's true. Simmons homers. No one notices. This is the world out of which I have emerged to somehow stand before you today. You understand why I find that somewhat surprising. [applause] This is an honor that is difficult to overstate. Everyone in broadcasting reveres Walter Cronkite. If there is or was a mount Rushmore of broadcasting, Cronkite would be on it, no question about it. It was a great pleasure to be able to say that I knew him. I met him for the first time when I interviewed him in a two-part program on NBC, interviewed him for a full hour. You saw a small excerpt from it. He was always so gracious and so supportive and to receive recognition that bears his name is both exciting and tremendously humbling. Also to spends time at the Cronkite school here and to see the quality of the facilities, get a sense of the quality of the instruction, and the right way of going about it, giving kids some kind of foundation in journalism but also having state of the art facilities so that they can learn on the job. No one can teach you to be a broadcaster this. They can give you back ground. They can give you advice, but the only way to find out if you have that knack and then to develop it is by hands on experience. At the Cronkite school that's what these young people are getting. I have been to a lot of broadcast journalism schools around the country. This is the first time that this Syracuse product has ever been able to say, maybe this is as good as Syracuse. [laughter] That's saying a lot. I think that sports broadcasting or the coverage of sports over all is most of the time not purely journalistic but journalism should be an aspect of it much more often than it generally is on the networks. I seize my opportunities where they come, but I think that the best of sports broadcasting is a combination of drama and theater and excitement and fun, skillfully presented in an informative and professional way but also I think too often, not always thankfully but too often, the networks shy away from controversial topics. Of course they want to present the thing that people primarily tune in for. The excitement and the panorama of the Olympics, the drama of a big football or baseball game. Get all that and happily part of it, but I also believe that the audience is able to still enjoy sports while recognizing that there are actual issues there. There was a whole steroid era in baseball. We're not entirely past it but it's subsided to a significant extent, partly because some of us were able to shine a light on it and eventually public outcry led to changes. But those people who were disillusioned by steroid infused bodies and bogus records didn't stop being baseball fans. When I acknowledged during the opening ceremony of the Olympics that the IOC, in a cowardly way, failed to acknowledge and properly honor the 40th anniversary of 11 Israeli athletes perishing at the 1972 Olympics, when I note that during the parade of nations I don't think anyone says, you know, the IOC really screwed up and therefore ‘click' I'm not watching the Olympics. I think we could use a larger dose of real journalism and real commentary about the issues in sports and I'm happy to be somebody who is on the inside, kind of in the mainstream, but at least among those who are willing to go in that direction when the circumstances present themselves. The Sandusky situation was one like that although it happened on Brian Williams' rock center program rather than specifically under the umbrella of NBC sports. It wasn't completely a sports story. It was to some extent about one man's abominable actions and one institution's either looking the other way or perhaps worse, but there's a larger story there too. Story about the relationship between big time sports and a university. That story is not confined to Penn State. I don't see any reason why the NCAA basketball tournament or every college football game you see couldn't include, maybe not every game but in judicious doses, couldn't include, you have ever other statistic in the world, what's the graduation rate of the basketball and football players at this university? What is the relationship between the proper function of a university and the appropriate in proportion place of athletics within that university? Are they coming close to that objective or are they making a mockery of it as too many do? I don't think people would automatically turn off the channel. I don't think so. I think people get it, that you can enjoy sports but still be skeptical about its excesses or its failures, or be interested in the issues. So I have tried, however imperfectly, to bring that element into sportscastinging where I could. There are others who do it. Real sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO is basically the sports equivalents of 60 minutes. The 30 for 30 series on ESPN is outstanding work. There are times when legitimate journalism pops up, but I think truly not often enough. People have asked me during the last 24 hours when I have been here, what does Walter Cronkite represent in a world that has changed so rapidly that Walter might not recognize some of what passes for media today. But the virtues of the kind of journalism that Walter Cronkite practiced were, yes, a scoop is a good thing, but to be fair, to be accurate, to get it right mattered more than to be first. Where we understood the difference between an informed commentary and an adhomenem attack. We understood as Bruce Cornblatt said in the video that since civil alone is not truth. That harsh put-downs are not the same thing as commentary. That there's a difference between reverence or even edginess and the snarkiness which you see everywhere. There are timeless virtues that Walter Cronkite embodied. Professionalism, dedication to craft, understanding of how a story is put together, and responsibility, not just to his bosses, not just to the ratings, but responsibility to a standard of his profession that others before him, Edward R. Murrow, Douglas Edwards, Eric Sevareid, whomever he took the torch from, those standards ought to be timeless even if the way we dress on television changes, if the frame of reference changes, if the means of communication changes, what matters is the quality of the presentation and the reliability of the information. If it's a lie or if it's lousy, it was a lie and lousy, if it was carved on the wall of a careful with a jagged rock. But if it's true and if it has some real value, then it doesn't matter whether it was sent out from a smart phone or on some device that someone is inventing while we sit here. If it's good it was good. If it was written with a quill pen on a piece of parchment paper or seen through flicker and static on an old fill co-TV. But if it isn't good, just because the technology allows you to put it out there, that's the test. I think sadly, too much of what's out there with notable exceptions, too much of the explosion in cable television, in talk radio, especially in the blogosphere, too much is about just uninformed commentary coming from almost nowhere with no sense of accountability. No adherence and belief in the timeless principles that somebody like Walter Cronkite embodied. When I spent a little bit of time with the students here, I was encouraged by the fact that, yeah, their frame of reference is different than mine. It should be. They will take it forward in their own way. But they should take with them the devotion to those virtues and those qualities that Walter Cronkite embodied. How it's presented, the technology, the bells and whistles, that may change, but the dedication to truth, to fairness, to quality, that's what Walter Cronkite was about. That's what I hope the young people in this room and at this university are taking to heart. That is why this award means so much and why I'm so grateful for it. Thanks very much. [applause]
Ted Simons: Bob Costas joins a distinguished list of journalists who have received the Cronkite award for excellence in journalism. I'm Ted Simons.

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