The University paid a double tribute Thursday evening to one of its most famous alumni, journalist Walter Cronkite.
The CMA Plaza was dedicated as the Walter L. Cronkite Plaza—and an art installation inspired by Cronkite, ’33, Life Member, was unveiled on the CMA building.
Four plaques were mounted at each corner of the plaza, each listing one of the four cardinal virtues of journalism: accuracy, courage, independence, and integrity. In the dedication ceremony, a journalism undergraduate stood at each plaque and read an anecdote about how Cronkite demonstrated those virtues throughout his 19-year tenure as CBS News anchor.
Don Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center for American History and a longtime Cronkite friend, said Cronkite—often dubbed “the most trusted man in America”—demonstrated courage when he took a stand on the Vietnam War.
In February 1968, Cronkite famously declared that the U.S. was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam, and argued that the war could not be won through military intervention: “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy.”
Today, in an era of highly opinionated, polarized TV news, it’s hard to fully appreciate how much courage it took for Cronkite to make that statement, Carlton said: “In saying that, his credibility as the most trusted man in America was at stake … but it’s that balance he had, of professionalism and humanism, that made him so trusted.”
After dusk, Ben Rubin‘s light-based art installation, And That’s The Way It Is, was unveiled at the CMA. The installation, which is part of UT’s Landmarks public art program, uses text-parsing software and six projectors to create a moving grid of text on the building. Some of the text is taken live from TV news captions, and some of it is excerpted from archival Cronkite transcripts.
Last night, in a trial run of the installation, words like “Dick Clark” and “organic gardening,” culled from live broadcasts on local and national news, scrolled across the building.
New York artist Rubin, who has also created works for the New York Times building and the London Science Museum, recommends viewers approach his art with the perspective of “distant reading,” as opposed to the line-by-line “close reading” taught in literature classes.
“Sometimes it’s a moving mass of text, and then occasionally an interesting word or phrase will jump out,” Rubin said in a Thursday afternoon Q&A. “Instead of analyzing each word, stand back and ponder the big picture.”
At the close of the dedication ceremony, five fire trucks pulled up outside the plaza, and their sirens nearly drowned out College of Communications Dean Rod Hart.
“We’ve planned all this to give you a sense of breaking news,” Hart joked as firefighters suited up on the sidewalk below. “I’m told there’s smoke in the building, and someone will take care of it. But we have another task, so let’s get to it. You are now seated on the Walter L. Cronkite Plaza.”
Ben Rubin’s “That’s The Way It Is” on the CMA Building in the Walter L. Cronkite Plaza. Photo by Paul Bardagjy. Courtesy the College of Fine Arts.