ASU Campaigns to Honor Flawed Hero Walter Cronkite with Postage Stamp

Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is lobbying to get its namesake’s face on a postage stamp.

Christopher Callahan, the school’s dean, started organizing a letter-writing campaign after the U.S. Postal Service announced last week that it is considering a proposal, submitted by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television and Digital News Association, to honor Cronkite.

“Needless to say, we think it’s a fabulous idea,” Callahan told New Times.

As the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cronkite earned the nickname “the most trusted man in America” for his no-nonsense coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the Apollo moon landings, and the Watergate scandal. ASU named the school for Cronkite in 1984. He addressed ASU students annually before his death in 2009.

The U.S. Postal Service reserves the honor of gracing a postage stamp for men and women who have made “extraordinary contributions to American society and culture,” according to the agency’s website. The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, a panel of about 15 people, including a Harvard historian, an Olympic gold medalist, and a forensic scientist, call the shots.

Cronkite was a “tremendous journalist,” Callahan said, who embodied the core values of ethical journalism: accuracy, integrity, objectivity, fairness, and thoroughness.

“Walter is our inspiration; he’s our guiding light,” Callahan said. “For him to be honored in this way would be a great honor for our school.”

But Cronkite wasn’t a saint. In his 2012 biography, Douglas Brinkley revealed a complicated and occasionally unethical side of the news giant that was largely hidden from the public during his life.

Among other exploits, Brinkley recounts how Cronkite counseled Robert Kennedy to announce his intention to run against Lyndon B. Johnson to “show people there will be a way out of this terrible war,” then conducted an exclusive interview with him where he said just that. He also reportedly manipulated an interview with Johnson by splicing film and struck a deal with Pan Am to comp his family flights to the South Pacific, Haiti, and other locales, where, in a conflict of interest his own bosses deemed concerning, they enjoyed snorkeling, swimming, and drinking free of charge.

A number of other TV journalists have since been ousted for similar — or lesser — missteps, including Dan Rather, who was bounced by CBS after using suspect documents to accuse George W. Bush of going AWOL from the National Guard. And Lilia Luciano was fired by NBC in 2012 for using deceptive editing techniques on George Zimmerman’s 911 call in the Trayvon Martin case.

“It turns out that the most trusted man didn’t always tell the truth,” wrote Newsweek’s Howard Kurtz following the biography’s release. “Had Cronkite pulled such stunts today, I would probably be among those calling for him to step down.”

Despite the revelations, though, Kurtz noted that his “admiration for the man is only partly diminished.

“Perhaps it is too easy to judge him by today’s standards, any more than we should condemn Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves,” he wrote. “Perhaps he simply reflected his times, when some journalists and politicians quietly collaborated, when conflicts of interest were routinely tolerated, when a powerful media establishment could sweep its embarrassments under the rug.”

At any rate, the U.S. Postal Service has issued stamps commemorating far more controversial subjects.

In 1994, for example, as the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings approached, the agency approved a stamp depicting a mushroom cloud with the caption “Atomic bombs hasten war’s end, August 1945.” Japanese protests were so fiery that the White House intervened and the postal service replaced it with a stamp picturing Harry Truman announcing the end of the war.

In 2001, when the postal service’s stamp honoring Hispanic artist Frida Kahlo came out, the public roasted the agency for honoring a drug-using Stalinist: “Visas are denied to artists with Frida Kahlo’s politics,” said writer Whitney Chadwick. In 2013, a Harry Potter stamp sparked outrage because the fictional wizard is not an American figure.

If approved, Cronkite’s stamp would be released in November of 2016 on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart