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NBC News anchor Brian Williams accepted the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism Wednesday, calling it "the highest honor in my life."
Williams, who has served as anchor and managing editor of the “NBC Nightly News” since 2004, was the 26th recipient of the award, bestowed each year by Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He joins a list of honorees that includes Tom Brokaw, the anchor Williams succeeded at NBC.
The first person to receive the award since Cronkite's death in July, Williams reflected on the differences between Cronkite's era and today, starting with millions of blogs and Twitter accounts and “cable networks that agree with you from the moment you wake up in the morning.”
People are confusing "tonnage" with knowledge when it comes to the crush of information available today on the Internet, Williams told an audience of more than 1,200 journalists, public officials, students, faculty and members of the public who attended the Cronkite Award luncheon in downtown Phoenix.
“Facts matter less,” he said. “We are all finding it is a heck of a lot easier to voice an opinion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than it is to go and report back home on what you find.
“All things civic, it seems some days in this country, are being replaced by all things narcissistic – one of the changes in the time since Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves and came into our homes.”
Williams said he watched Cronkite from the time he was a child and always aspired to be like him. He called Cronkite his “north star.”
Cronkite was ideal for his era, Williams said.
“As icons go, Walter was unique," he said. "He was the right man in the right job at precisely the right time.”
ASU Executive Vice President and Provost Betty Capaldi presented Williams with the award after recounting a long list of his accomplishments, including four Edward R. Murrow awards, five Emmys, the duPont-Columbia University Award and the George Foster Peabody Award. He also holds six honorary doctorates.
His award-winning work has included coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which the New York Times called “a defining moment as a network reporter and anchor.”
In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the 100 “People Who Shape Our World.”
During his two-day visit to the school, Williams met with Cronkite students, visited the KPNX-Channel 12 newsroom and hosted the “NBC Nightly News” from the rooftop of the Cronkite School on Tuesday night. He spent more than an hour Wednesday morning with students in the school’s First Amendment Forum, answering their questions and offering advice.
At the luncheon, Williams told the crowd that he sees one sign that more of those seeking reliable information are cutting through the clutter. His show’s ratings are up this year, exceeding viewership even during the presidential election.
“We don’t know why," he said. "We guess it’s because the difference is becoming sharper, and people know where to find us and they know what they’re going to get.”
And that's where Cronkite's values can guide journalists today, Williams said.
“It's all there if you know the difference,” he said. "There's journalism and there is everything ending in 'lol.'”
Previous Cronkite Award recipients include TV journalists Bill Moyers and Jane Pauley; newspaper publishers Katharine Graham, Al Neuharth and Otis Chandler; television executives Bill Paley, Frank Stanton and Ted Turner; and newspaper journalists Ben Bradlee, Helen Thomas and Bob Woodward. Last year’s winners were Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil of PBS.
Cronkite News Service contributed to this report.