In the magazine world, you never know what’s going to irk a reader. When I wrote about an experience I had with Walter Cronkite related to Arizona Highways, I had no idea idea it would send a reader so far over the edge that he’d cancel his subscription. The guy is from Chillicothe, Missouri, and he’d been growing frustrated with the magazine. In particular, he thought the photography and the writing had gone downhill. That was bad enough, in his opinion, but when I wrote about Mr. Cronkite in our November 2009 issue, that was “the last straw.” He could no longer support a magazine that gave space to “America’s Least Trusted Liberal.” That’s what he called him. Ironically, Mr. Cronkite was always credited with never showing his hand politically while he was in the anchor chair. That was always one of the big questions: “Is Cronkite a Democrat or a Republican?” Well, regardless of the guy in Missouri, I have nothing but respect for Mr. Cronkite and his legacy. What follows is my November column, in case you’re interested in seeing what caused at least one person to cancel his subscription:
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mr. Cronkite lately. It’s not just his death; it’s the time of year. November is when he’d make his annual trek to Arizona State University and the journalism school that bears his name. He’d meet with students and faculty and a flood of others, and then he’d present the “Walter Cronkite Award of Excellence” to some worthy journalist. This year’s recipient is Brian Williams of NBC. Unfortunately, Walter Cronkite won’t be there to shake his hand.
Like so many ASU grads, and men and women all over, I’m having a hard time imagining a world without the most trusted man in America. He’s been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. Although his passing wasn’t unexpected, the news was still tremendously sad. In the days and weeks following his death, you heard a lot about his accomplishments — no one in the history of journalism earned more respect, and no one deserved more. There’s nothing I can say about his legacy that you don’t already know. There is one story, however, that you haven’t heard.
As a board member, adjunct professor and graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cronkite on many occasions — it will forever remain one my greatest claims to fame. Most recently, Mr. Cronkite and I were in an almost empty room together. It was November, and he was in Phoenix for his annual visit. Among other things, the banquet surrounding the award presentation included a meet-and-greet with Mr. Cronkite. I was always lucky enough to get an invitation.
On his last visit, I found my way to the private reception, and there he was, alone on a stool, with only his assistant and a photographer in the room. I remember walking up, introducing myself as the editor of Arizona Highways, and asking him about the state of journalism in this country. We talked about Britney Spears being front-page news, and then he leaned over to me and asked: “Is there any chance you could send me some copies of Arizona Highways? I used to get the magazine — I don’t know who sent it — but then it stopped coming. I always enjoyed looking at it.”
I remember thinking: Hmmm … is he serious? WALTER CRONKITE wants copies of OUR magazine? I’m pretty sure I can make that happen.
I had almost five minutes alone with him that day, which in Walter Cronkite time was an eternity. As a general rule, I think “surreal” is one of the most overused words in the English language, but there’s no other way of describing that morning. I presume he received the magazines, but I never knew for sure. And I guess it doesn’t really matter. That he even made the request made my day.
Since then, I’ve always imagined Mr. Cronkite reading our magazine, which put a lot of extra pressure on the editorial process. Would he appreciate the writing, the photography, the design? This month, I think he would have approved. Although our cover story isn’t Watergate or the Apollo moon landing, it does provide a service, especially if you’ve had it up to here with bean sprouts and protein shakes. As you’ll see, all of the diners and drive-ins in the story are authentic, which means they serve french fries, onion rings, banana splits, homemade pie, hamburgers, cheeseburgers and plenty of chrome accents. It’ll hit the spot. If popcorn’s more your thing, head to a Harkins theater. Theirs is the best.
In the same way that Walter Cronkite is an icon in the world of journalism, Harkins is an icon here in Arizona. The popcorn is part of it, but it takes more than that to become the largest family-owned theater chain in the country. In Reeling in the Years by Kelly Kramer, you’ll learn about the unlikely beginnings of the company, the skirmish with Hollywood, the near bankruptcy and everything else that ultimately led to Harkins’ happy ending. It’s a story I think Mr. Cronkite would have enjoyed. At least that’s what I’ll be imagining as Brian Williams accepts the award named for a man who’s been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember — a role model I’ll never forget.
Robert Stieve, Editor