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Ron Kaye: Is this the house we want to live in?

July 02, 2013

The Fourth of July always brings out the little boy in me, no matter how old I get, the little boy whose imagination was lit when he saw a movie short of Frank Sinatra singing “The House I Live In” as he stopped a bunch of kids from picking on a Jewish boy.

“What is America to me? A name, a map, or a flag I see? A certain word, ‘democracy?’”

He answers his questions enumerating the richness and diversity and the freedom — “the right to speak my mind out … but especially the people, that’s America to me.”

It was 1945, at the end of World War II, and I was four; this short film became the foundation of my political consciousness, which was augmented by a voracious, childhood appetite for the biographies of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who inspired Virginians to take up arms in 1775 by declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

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Before I was 10, my No. 1 hero was someone Wikipedia describes as a “political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary” — Thomas Paine, who wrote “Common Sense,” a wildly popular pamphlet advocating the overthrow of the tyranny of the British king.

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one,” Paine wrote.

I didn’t say I was much of a political philosopher or theorist, but the ideas formed as a child and the influences that formed them must have somehow led me to become a journalist 50 years ago and to take an activist attitude to my work in the face of corporate ownership’s homogenizing and pasteurizing the news and its presentation, leaving it to the uninformed reader to somehow figure out context and meaning.

Before television wiped out half the newspapers in the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, the media was highly competitive — 12 papers in New York, I think, eight or nine in L.A., six in Chicago, three in my hometown of Cleveland.

Owners had axes to grind and targeted audiences that shared their beliefs, or at least were interested in what they had to say, creating a robust conversation among competing points of view as many people read more than one paper.

But sound-bite journalism over the airwaves and gelded news in print ended that public conversation and I believe has a lot to do with the state of America today.

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