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In his 25 years as the footnote to the popular television newsmagazine 60 Minutes, commentator Andy Rooney has been called a racist, a nationalist, a homophobe and a sexist. But the latest criticism of the 84-year-old curmudgeon comes from an unlikely source: a self-proclaimed champion of freedom of speech.
And Rooney's pal Walter Cronkite is not pleased.
Joe Russomanno, a veteran professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, has pledged to boycott a November luncheon in Phoenix where Cronkite himself, along with local media, ASU academics and Valley business leaders, will honor Rooney's career. Ironically, it's Rooney's decision to exercise his own right to free speech that has miffed Russomanno, the author of a First Amendment textbook. Most notably, the professor is angered by comments the commentator made about women last October on a sports talk show, the latest group (gays, blacks, American Indians, Greeks and the French have been targets in the past) to incur Rooney's wrath.
"The only thing that really bugs me about television's coverage [of football games] is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don't know what the hell they're talking about," Rooney told onetime Arizona Cardinals quarterback Boomer Esiason on the aptly titled "Boomer Esiason Show." "I mean, I'm not a sexist person, but a woman has no business being down there trying to make some comment about a football game."
Newspaper columnists and female sports broadcasters across the country then trashed Rooney until he issued a statement a week later on 60 Minutes that ran just short of an official apology. "I wish I hadn't included all women covering football. Some are quite good," he said in his weekly commentary, adding the caveat, "but most of the women are there because they're good-looking, not because they know the game."
Russomanno took little solace in Rooney's clarification. As long as Rooney is the recipient of the Cronkite Award of Excellence -- a lifetime achievement award that has been handed out by Cronkite personally for the past 20 years -- Russomanno vows to stick by his decision to boycott this year's event. And other ASU faculty members may join him in dissent.
"We're talking about an award that carries the name of the organization for which I work," says Russomanno, who wrote Speaking Our Minds, a mini-anthology of freedom of speech cases heard by the Supreme Court. "[Cronkite's] name symbolizes character, integrity and quality. I don't see those attributes in Andy Rooney."
Apparently, though, Cronkite and a group of about 40 local media professionals and academics known as the Cronkite Endowment Board of Trustees saw Rooney as a perfect fit for the honor, which has been bestowed upon some of the most accomplished broadcast and print media icons of the past 50 years. The list of honorees includes the late Katherine Graham and Roone Arledge, as well as Bob Woodward, Ted Turner and last year's recipient, Monday Night Football play-by-play man and ASU alum Al Michaels. While Russomanno's quiet protest seems to matter very little to Rooney, who scoffed when told of it by New Times, Cronkite -- who lent his name to ASU's journalism school in 1983 because, he says, it was led by "stalwart defenders of freedom of speech" -- is peeved.
"That's the kind of censorship [boycotting the luncheon] that I would find most offensive," says Cronkite, 86, contacted at his summer home on Martha's Vineyard. In fact, when CBS executives suspended Rooney from 60 Minutes in 1990 for derogatory comments he made about homosexuals to the gay magazine The Advocate, Cronkite used his CBS clout to help get Rooney -- his friend for nearly 60 years -- back on the air. "Everyone knows that Andy Rooney is a paid curmudgeon. If they want to censor Andy Rooney . . . well, I hope they do not come to the luncheon," Cronkite adds.
"Anyone who would do such a damn thing shouldn't be considered a journalist."
Russomanno says he believes boycotting the luncheon, to be held at the Arizona Biltmore on November 6, is a matter of principle. "I'm very much a First Amendment advocate," he says. "I've published in that area and I teach in that area. I'm very supportive of people expressing dissenting views. Being out of touch with humanity, however, is another thing.
"It seems to me that when someone is in casual conversation as opposed to a scripted venue, [Rooney's comments] are more reflective of his heart and soul," he adds.
As they do every year, the members of the endowment board's executive committee submitted the Rooney nomination to Cronkite, who can ultimately veto the selection (but never has), in the spring.
The Cronkite Award luncheon -- which is celebrating its 20th anniversary by inviting past honorees to attend -- is the endowment board's biggest fund-raising vehicle. The event, according to Cronkite School officials, nets about $60,000 for the school's overall operating budget of $170,000. Tables at the luncheon run as much as $6,000 apiece, and are expected to be bought by faithful donors like the Arizona Republic, East Valley Tribune, the Valley's major television affiliates, and corporate supporters like Bank One, Wells Fargo, Clear Channel Communications, APS, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Phoenix Suns, all of whom paid to be on the guest list last year. Invitations for this year's luncheon were mailed out last week, and organizers hope that their goal of 1,000 attendees will be met.
If any kind of boycott makes headway, though, the school could take a significant hit. The school's interim director, Steve Doig, says he might sit down with faculty members -- including Bruce Merrill and Craig Allen, who told New Times they were supportive of Russomanno but unsure of whether they would boycott -- to discuss the situation. Others in the school are taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I think that faculty are waiting for the event to draw near before they make a decision to boycott," says Allen, who teaches broadcast news reporting, among other courses, at ASU, and is a close friend of Russomanno. He adds that the situation could be easily defused if Rooney explained his comments further before the event, and engaged in some sort of discussion with ASU faculty.
But Rooney refuses.
"I've already said it was a dumb thing to say," Rooney tells New Times. "I doubt I'll make any public apology for it."
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