Every year, Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication honors a distinguished journalist with the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. The 2013 recipient was Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Hear Schieffer’s speech he made about the state of journalism after accepting the award in Phoenix.
Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," long-time CBS newsman Bob Schieffer is the winner of the 2013 Cronkite Award for Excellence in journalism. Hear what Bob Schieffer had to say about his career in journalism and working with Walter Cronkite. That's next on "Arizona Horizon."
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Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Each year ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication honors a leading journalist with the Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. This year's award went to Bob Schieffer, host of CBS' "Face the Nation." Bob Schieffer has been at CBS News since 1969. He's one of the few journalists to have covered the White House, Congress, the State department and the Pentagon. He's also moderated major political debates including a 2004 Presidential debate held in Tempe. Here now is Bob Schieffer's acceptance speech at the Cronkite Award luncheon in downtown Phoenix.
Announcer: This year's Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism recipient, Mr. Bob Schieffer.
Bob Schieffer: Thank you all, please. My heavens! What a day. I told some people at dinner last night, there have been some wonderful journalists and some greats in broadcasting that have accepted this award. But I truly believe none of them could have appreciated it as much as I do, because Walter truly was, when I was a young reporter, my hero. I wanted to be like him, I still want to be like him. To have an award with his name on it is just something that it is just -- I'm over -- I'm truly overwhelmed and I'm not easily overwhelmed. Thank you all very much.
Let me also say, you must be and should be very, very proud of what has been accomplished here at the Walter Cronkite School. It is truly unique, there is nothing like it in America today. And it is so wonderful yesterday to come here to see it.
I want to tell you also, I had no idea how many people were going to be here today. I knew it was going to be a big crowd, and I was sitting back here and I was thinking, it reminded me -- and I always think of this -- many years ago when not very many people came to see me speak, I was invited to a little school in Louisiana called Louisiana College. It was deep in the bayou country. And it was a beautiful spring day and we walked into the school auditorium. They had all the windows up, there was no air-conditioning. There was a kid in every seat in the place. The balcony was filled up. There were students sitting in the aisle between the two sides of the auditorium. They had raised the window and they were these big windows. There were kids sitting in the windowsills. I looked out the window right next to the podium and three boys had climbed into a tree and were sitting there looking in. I said, you know, I have to tell you on a beautiful spring day like this, I am absolutely -- I'm just -- my breath is taken away that you would find the time come here and listen to me. I'm truly honored. A kid in the front row said, "It's mandatory." [laughter] So I don't know why you came but I'm proud to see you here today. [Applause] That's a true story.
I want to talk to you just a little bit today about something serious. I thought this would probably be a good place to say it. You know, as we say in the news business, here is the lead. We are in the midst -- and there's no other way to put it -- we are in the midst of a communications revolution. But at the same time we're in the midst of a crisis in journalism. News is traveling faster than it ever has in the history of man, and yet the road for newspapers, which have been the backbone of American journalism, the road is more uphill and rougher than it has ever been. With digital technology, we can now transmit news around the world in a second, faster than ever. And when I say we, I don't mean the traditional distributors of journalism. I mean we, everyone, as in anyone who has an iPhone, anyone who has computer. We used to say, you needed a barrel of ink and a printing press and anybody who had those two things could be a publisher. Well, forget the barrel of ink and forget the printing press. You don't need any of that now with the new digital technology. The system that had produced great newspapers and broadcast outlets. We got up in the morning and read the newspaper, we came home at night and watched television. It was all very orderly. But that was then and this is now. Forget all of the things that you used to need to publish a newspaper.
We have discovered because we're all publishers now, that there are many smart new voices out there. But we have also discovered there are a lot of people out there who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. We get more information now, we have access to more information than any people in the history of the earth. But access to information does not always equate with wisdom. The good news about the web, news does travel fast. Those with a grievance can make others aware of it. A revolution no longer needs a charismatic leader as we saw in the Egyptian revolution. The bad news is the deranged can now find each other. Today, even those with the most outrageous, horrible, demonic views can find someone on the web who agrees with them. Fanatics of every stripe are able to connect. This ability to connect has turned our culture inside out and our journalism upside down. What we are relearning is that changes in technology always happen before we are able to figure out what to do with them, and how to bring them under control. Think about this. How many men, how many soldiers died before the generals understood that the way to attack a machine gun was not to march men head-on directly into machine gun fire? It's always that way with technological advances. They happen and then we figure out what to do with them. As we try now to understand how best to use the new technology that affects journalism and communications, it is well to understand how much it has already changed the society in which we live. It has totally redefined our definition of privacy. It has changed the way we do almost everything from buying and selling things, to purchasing restaurant tickets, restaurant tabs. But it has also created -- and we must be aware of this -- new dangers and portioned our manners and dialogue with one another. The cloak of anonymity the web provides has made it easier for stalkers and others to prey on the innocent. It has brought, as well, a new vulgarity to our dialogue. I cannot imagine that many people who write to me on the web would use the same obscenities and hateful words to my face that they feel free to use in their anonymous email. As the cartoon goes, on the internet, no one knows you're a dog.
But that is just an annoyance as we deal with these new communications breakthroughs. Far more serious to contemplate is the explosion of news outlets and the impact that has had. Again, good and bad news. We can now get the news delivered from every conceivable point of view, conservative, very conservative, liberal, very, very liberal. I suppose if you had a need for it you could find some news channel that delivered the news from a vegetarian point of view. But the other side is, many tend now to rely only on the stations or the channels that I call the validation places, the channels that validate your preconceived notion. The result of this is we are not all getting the whole story. In the old days most people got their information from the same sources. Now we're basing our opinions on information gathered from thousands of sources. We are not all basing our opinions on the same data. I think that is one of the reasons, not the only reason by a long shot, but one of the reasons our politics today are so toxic and the partisan divide is so wide and the government remains in what we have come to think of as an eternal gridlock.
It is the impact that this explosion of news outlets is having on newspapers that is of the most concern. As advertisers have drifted to the web, the ads that were the lifeblood of many of the nation's newspapers, great and small, has slowed to a trickle. Many are on life support. We spend a lot of time these days in journalism worrying about whether newspapers will continue to be printed on paper. I believe that is the wrong question. The question is not whether we are going to get the news written down on paper or on our wristwatch, but the content that we receive. What will the information we get in the future be? Will it be accurate? Will it be vetted as we have normally and have now come to expect from mainstream journalism? Will it be true? Will it be information that we can trust? All of us, especially in journalism, need to be thinking about newspapers and we need to support them in every way that we can, because if we reach the point in this country that some entity, either newspapers, broadcasters, the web, if we reach the point that some entity does not do what newspapers have traditionally done -- and that is keep a watch on local government -- we will see corruption in this country as we have never seen it before.
One of the things I have done as all of this shakes out is urged local broadcasters to take on the slack if the newspapers in their community begin to cut back. I think one of the things they can do is simply hire the best investigative reporters that the newspaper has, put them to work. They will learn the television part quickly. A good reporter is a good reporter. To some, the challenges -- [Applause] Thank you. To some, the challenges to newspapers has led to the belief that journalism is a dying industry. That is wrong. Journalism is changing, but the need for journalism is greater than ever. And here is why. A democracy as we know it cannot exist unless citizens have access to independently gathered information that they can compare to the government's version of events. Unless you can have that, our democracy, our government cannot exist as we know it today. The access to accurate, independently gathered information is as crucial to the Democratic form of government as the right to vote. I think sometimes we forget that, but it is very true. [Applause]
So what do we do? And what's going to happen in the future? I think that someone is going find a way to distribute news and do it at a profit, because these cannot be charities. They cannot be government institutions. Journalists don't work for the government, we watch the government. But here is what leads me to think that journalism is going to survive. You know, nobody ever became plumbing contractor because they thought it was a glamorous profession. They became a plumbing contractor because they had figured out a way, at a profit, to give people something that they had decided they needed: Indoor plumbing. So it will be in journalism. Someone is going to find a way to do this. Because when societies need something, they find a way to get it. That person is not going to be someone who thinks in the past. We have had the sale of some of our great newspapers in this country to people who tried to run them by the old business model. They spectacularly failed. The person who figures out how to provide this need to communities is going to be someone who is thinking forward, not backward. Someone who is an innovator. I think that someone maybe like the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post. He is an innovator, a master of marketing who understands the role that newspapers play. He figured out a whole new way to sell books and that has revolutionized the way we sell almost anything. Can he figure out a profitable way to distribute news? And it has to be profitable. We are not charities. I hope he can. But the rest of us in journalism can't wait around to see what he comes up with.
Social media is fine. Tweets and such are nice. But journalism is not about scratching the surface. It is about going beneath the surface and finding the truth. [Applause]
I would also say this: We should never let anyone in government think they have an exclusive on wisdom. By the same token, we must also remember, neither do we. So let me repeat what I have said before. Journalism is not a dying industry, it is more necessary and more needed than ever, because it is a more complex world that we are dealing with.
I want to close this today with a story, my favorite story. Somebody asked me last night, what is your favorite story about Walter Cronkite? And this is the one I told at Walter's funeral. It helps you to understand how I feel about Walter. The year was 1976. I was the White House correspondent, President Ford was President, our first unelected president. He was running trying to win the office in his own right against Jimmy Carter. The election was the biggest story of the year. As the other big story was, the flu shot. The government had just developed these flu vaccines and they were not working too well. Those were the big stories we were concerned with. As we went one day, the White House Press Corps, with President Ford up to New York where he was being interviewed by Barbara Walters that afternoon, she was going to run the interview the next morning on the "Today" show. Barbara could make you believe it when she said something like this. Barbara said, "Anyone who interviewed the President before her interview aired the next morning would be killed." As I said, Barbara had a way of making people believe that.
Here we were being reporters, we immediately began trying to figure out a way to bust Barbara's exclusive. I went to the White House press secretary. I said, "Could we--?" He said, "No, out of the question, we've given Barbara our word we wouldn't do this." I went next to the White House Chief of Staff, 32 years old, I called him Dick in those days. Later I would call him Mr. Vice President, Dick Cheney. I said, "Dick, this is really putting us in a bind." He said, "Oh no, Bob, I'm sorry, we've given Barbara our word, we're not going to let the President be interviewed by anybody else." Then, to make matters even worse I get a call from New York, and who is it? Walter Cronkite.
"Bob," he said, "I understand the President is going to be up at Yonkers a little later today. Is there any way I could get up there?"
I said, "Of course, Walter." What was I going to say? "No, you stay there in New York."
"Bob, would you see if I could get just a brief interview with the President?"
I said, "Well, Walter, that's going to be kind of hard. I don't know if I can, but let me get to work." So I go back to Dick Cheney. I said, "Dick, now Walter is coming up he wants to interview the President." He said, "We can't do that, we gave our word to Barbara." I said, "Let me ask you this: Could you sort of let Walter sneak in the back door and just shake hands with the President? I know the President likes him and it would be a thrill for Walter." He said, "Well, I guess we could do that." I said, "You don't mind if I bring a camera crew in there just to record that?" He said, "Bob, I'm just telling you, he's not going do any interview."
I said, "I understand completely." At the appointed hour Walter arrived and the camera crew was there and there was a sound man. Walter took the microphone from the sound man and put it in his left hand. When he opened the door he walked right up to the President and said, "Hello, Mr. President! Are you going take your flu shot?" And Ford knew exactly what was going on and he almost burst out laughing. He said, "Well, Walter, as a matter of fact I am. This is a good thing and I think people ought to do it and I think I should set the example."
Well, I want to tell you, that evening 6:30, the CBS News went on and it went just like this: "Good evening, President Ford told me in an exclusive interview on the campaign trail today that he would take his flu shot." And then we proceeded to run that entire interview, all nine seconds of it. And I want to tell you, from that day forward Walter Cronkite, nobody loved a scoop more than Walter Cronkite, especially when it was his own scoop, and especially when he had scooped Barbara Walters. Walter never forgot that and took care of me from that day forward. Thank you all! [Applause] Thank you.
Ted Simons: Bob Schieffer is the 30th journalist to receive the Cronkite Award. That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.