A Walk up Eighth Avenue  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2004

A Walk up Eighth Avenue   

And some random thoughts about journalism

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Back in New York for a journalism conference, it occurred to me that in all the years I'd been coming here I had never visited the city's Gothic masterpiece, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

That morning's session was devoted to media convergence, a subject of undeniable importance but which makes my head hurt. I glanced at the map. My hotel was at 49th Street and Broadway, the cathedral at 110th and Amsterdam. Basically, the only thing standing between us was a 61-block length of Eighth Avenue. This would be the day's exercise, I decided, and I laced up the sneaks.

Within minutes I was at Eighth Avenue at 59th--Columbus Circle, home of the secular glass spires of the new Time Warner headquarters--where the wide thoroughfare becomes Central Park West. I crossed over to the walkway beside the park.

It was cool out. The early sun to my right was filtered through the trees of the park and the mist coming off the lake. As it was Saturday, the city roused leisurely. A few joggers were out, but mostly it was people walking dogs or dogs walking people--eight of them surrounding one woman, leashes radiating from her like spokes on a wheel.

In other words, it was a fine morning for thinking New York thoughts: how the New York Times, for all its emotional churn of the past year, still manages to set the standard for both news breadth and smart thinking; how The New Yorker has figured out how to be true to its tradition and yet utterly contemporary; how that cheeky pink sheet, the New York Observer, remains one of my favorite reads.

I passed Tavern on the Green and then Strawberry Fields, which memorializes John Lennon. The hexagonal stone pavers of the walkway undulated beneath my feet, made wavy from years of frost heaves, undermining tree roots and uncountable numbers of pedestrians. Without lights to impede you (few of the cross streets actually enter the park), the blocks click away in no time. To my left, the American Museum of Natural History, to my right the Great Lawn.

More thoughts, whizzing by as randomly as the passing taxis: Hasn't Robert Novak gotten off easy for divulging the identify of a CIA agent? (I don't dispute his right to print her name, but why would you do it?) Why are journalists invariably more interesting on Don Imus' radio program than they are in their real jobs? Aren't blogs putting the "journal" back in journalism? If you think about it, isn't the inverted pyramid form the equivalent of starting a joke with the punchline?

Before I knew it I was at 110th Street, where the park ends. I turned left and stepped past shopkeepers sweeping clean the sidewalks in front of their stores. Then at Morningside Park I suddenly caught sight of the great cathedral, hovering over a rock promontory like the Parthenon atop the Acropolis. Scaffolding surrounding the south tower serves to remind that the cathedral is an unfinished work, though its cornerstone was laid in 1892.

Inside, the great vaulting arches trap the darkness, which only serves to contrast the magical light of the stained glass windows. A tour group overtakes me, and the clever docent, explaining the church's architecture, employs volunteers to build a human arch and buttresses. Like a good journalist, he knows it's better to show than tell.

Just as suddenly they move on, leaving me alone again with my thoughts. What an age we are experiencing. We are fighting a peculiar war, we have a heavyweight presidential election on the way, we have an economy going through a transformative change. Shocking images from Baghdad jails jolt our arrogant certitude of moral superiority. Under the circumstances we could probably all use a little more cathedral time. I thought about the world we are building for two daughters who are already out of the house and two more who aren't far behind. And if they're growing up, must I?

Sitting there, in that vast space, what I did not think about was convergence--except maybe the convergence of stone and glass, art and craft, body and soul.

Ironically, being in church got me to feeling guilty about playing hooky from the conference, so I decided to head back. I picked up the Times and caught the No. 1 train for midtown. A front-page highlight to an inside story said that "a dark energy is steadily pushing the universe apart, suggesting the universe may end with a slide into senescence rather than a violent apocalypse..."

This prompted two final thoughts. The Times was probably the only newspaper in the world that used "senescence" (the state or process of aging) on its front page that morning. And while I would take a senescent slide over an apocalypse any day, I wish I was as confident as the Times about how this story ultimately turns out.


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