When Karen Shannon thinks about Walter Cronkite, she thinks about the assassination of President Kennedy and man landing on the moon.
“It was his voice, and it was the news. It was what we did,” the former ASU employee said.
Every night over dinner, Shannon and her husband turned on the CBS Evening News and watched Cronkite report the day’s events. The show’s anchorman for 19 years and a journalist for decades longer, Cronkite was witness to many of the events that defined the 20th century. His voice reported many of those stories to the American people, and it was his unparralled skill of the craft that earned him the title, “most trusted man in America.”
So many years later, Shannon and several hundred students, faculty and community members were on hand for ASU’s tribute evening for the namesake of the journalism school on September 30. Throughout the day, tributes and documentaries played on the massive screen in the forum of the Cronkite School, with the keynote event a panel of journalism luminaries discussing Cronkite’s career.
The idea was former CNN anchor and current faculty member Aaron Brown would moderate, via video satellite, a discussion about Cronkite’s career with Newshour anchor Jim Lehrer, Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward and former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw. Ironic for an event that was to honor a man whose voice and face are personally and intimately known to so many, the video failed completely and the audio was reliable only from time to time. But, like old pros, the four broadcast notables made their way through with humor and ease, sidestepping the technical issues. It was in this way, with professionalism and confidence, that Cronkite’s legacy was best remembered that evening.
Brown and the panel talked about a time that most of the audience never experienced firsthand. The school’s students, who attended out of respect, extra credit for classes or the free food, live in a completely different world and news environment, as Lehrer pointed out.
“There could never be another Walter Cronkite. Then, 98% of Americans watched evening news. Today, there is no shared news experience,” he said.
Students today use tools Cronkite could never have imagined during his career at CBS, such as Twitter. Some of the audience tweeted the event. One tweet read, “Just finished the Walter Cronkite tribute ceremony. So proud I go to the school I go to!” Another: “Said goodbye today to Walter Cronkite as part of ASU’s inspiring tribute to the most trusted man in America.” Others did homework or watched attentively. Some took notes for stories they were writing about the tribute for their journalism classes.
Cronkite never had a chance to visit the new building in Downtown Phoenix. Filled with super high-tech equipment and supporting a healthy, open environment to learn in, much of the school’s focus is teaching students the digital tools they need to survive in the ever-competitive (and ever-changing) world of journalism.
While the mediums and styles of reporting the news have changed, the basic tenants of the profession, such as telling the truth and building trust with the audience, haven’t.
“Cronkite was the most trusted man in the world,” Lehrer’s voice declared at a point when the audio worked. “If you don’t have the trust of the people you’re talking to, it’s pointless.”
Disclaimer: The reporter is a graduate student at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.