Mark Scarp: Walter Cronkite’s name put Arizona State University’s journalism school on the media map. Since Cronkite became the “face” of ASU journalism in 1984, the school began a quarter-century of improvement and expansion of its curriculum, the addition of top-flight faculty and in 2008, a new six-story building in downtown Phoenix, as well as growing amounts of private philanthropic support.
Walter Cronkite's name put Arizona State University's journalism school on the media map. Since Cronkite became the "face" of ASU journalism in 1984, the school began a quarter-century of improvement and expansion of its curriculum, the addition of top-flight faculty and, in 2008, a new six-story building in downtown Phoenix, as well as growing amounts of private philanthropic support.
Most any American who knows even a little about Cronkite knows that he was an Easterner, a New Yorker. And when he took time off, he often went even farther east to sail in the Atlantic Ocean. Then why was the journalism school at Arizona State University, 2,500 miles west of Manhattan, the one that was named for the legendary CBS newsman?
Well, it's not as though Cronkite had never been here. He visited the state several times during his news career. Tom Chauncey II, son of the former owner of Phoenix's CBS affiliate, said Cronkite attended several meetings of television stations held at a Valley resort, and he had made side trips to the Grand Canyon and to the Chaunceys' one-time Arabian horse ranch in north Scottsdale.
But that connection wouldn't seem strong enough for Cronkite to bestow icon status to ASU when there were far more prominent journalism programs in other parts of the country. So how did ASU claim Cronkite's legacy?
The answer lies in part in the superb ratings performance of then-Phoenix CBS affiliate Channel 10 with the call letters KOOL-TV. Chauncey, son of the late Tom Chauncey Sr., said KOOL-TV had one of the highest audience shares of any CBS affiliate nationwide. At one point, KOOL's television news broadcasts had more than a 50 percent share, said Chauncey, who is a Phoenix attorney. That means of all the Valley TV sets turned on during the local news, more than 50 percent of them were tuned to Channel 10, something that in today's world of hundreds of channels could not be duplicated.
"People today have no clue as to what that meant," Chauncey said. "A big winner today is 3, maybe 4 percent (share)."
The elder Chauncey also was known to network officials as having led a successful effort years earlier to convince fellow station owners to let CBS expand its "Evening News" broadcast from 15 minutes to a half-hour, something Cronkite had sought.
"CBS and Walter Cronkite never forgot that," Tom Chauncey II said of his father's efforts.
Tom Chauncey Sr. was one of several Phoenix media leaders who huddled in the early 1980s over how to improve things at ASU's Department of Journalism, which the younger Chauncey said was going through "a difficult time without much support."
They decided to create an endowment fund and solicit for contributions to it. But they also agreed a big name should be attached to the campaign to collect donations. The elder Chauncey offered to recruit his good friend, Walter Cronkite. His son said he was in the room when his father made the call.
"They promised a new kind of journalism that would be very much supported by local community," Chauncey said. "We'd come up with a new teaching model with people who really knew what they were doing, and would he support it. And he said, sure."
According to the school Web site, the original endowment grew, and after only a few years, Cronkite also agreed to have his name put on the department itself, which was upgraded from department to "school."
Walter Cronkite is gone, and students at what he had often referred to as "my school" will no longer benefit from his annual visits, which allowed them to talk about accuracy and integrity in journalism with the flesh-and-blood version of their school's very big name.
The principles he stood for were just the thing more than 25 years ago for a journalism school in a community in the desert whose links to those precepts were as strong as any found along the Hudson River.
Mark J. Scarp of Scottsdale (email@example.com), a former Tribune editorial writer and columnist, is a faculty associate at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.