The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications.

By Paul Starr

New York: Basic Books, 2004
484 pages

By Jeffrey Scheuer

America’s unfinished journey toward democratic ideals has been a tortuous struggle from uncertain beginnings. The nation that emerged after the Revolution was hardly an economic or cultural dynamo; it was rather a loose confederation of backwater states, flung across a thousand-mile seaboard between ocean and wilderness. As we can see in historical and moral hindsight, that fledgling republic had already failed one great test of its democracy – and humanity – by practicing, and implicitly codifying, slavery; and was about to fail another in the conquest and brutal subjugation of its native peoples.

Democratic citizenship, in the early decades, was limited not only to white males, but often to those with wealth and/or land. And if the very formation of our government involved a moral compromise with slavery, the framing of it, through the Senate and the Electoral College, gave undue power to the less populous states, including the power to frustrate majorities, as seen in the last presidential election. By 1861, that federal system had failed catastrophically to deal with three intertwined issues: slavery and its extension into new states; secession; and the cultural and economic distinctiveness of the South.

Nevertheless, as the Princeton sociologist Paul Starr happily reminds us in this solid and ambitious study, the Framers got a few things right. In addition to securing the liberties expected by former British subjects, the Constitution – and specifically the First Amendment – lead to both gradual and dramatic expansions of public discourse. By the early 19thcentury, America’s attainments in the interlocking spheres of journalism, publishing, schooling, and literacy were unsurpassed even in Britain and France. This efflorescence of talking, writing, and learning set the stage for both the point-to-point, or “horizontal,” electronic communication and the “vertical” broadcasting that define the modern media.

The new American government did not just enshrine freedom of speech in its constitution: “Instead of taxing newspapers,” Starr observes, “the government subsidized them. It created a comprehensive postal network and ensured postal privacy. It introduced a periodic census, published the aggregate results, and assured individuals anonymity. Primarily through local efforts, it extended primary schooling earlier to more of its population, including women… [t]he South conspicuously deviated from this pattern in critical respects… .”

Communications networks in general spread more quickly, more efficiently, and across a much wider swath of society – rural as well as urban – in the U.S. than in England or the Continent. The political and legal climate were surely one reason for this; so were the absence of political and linguistic fragmentation and hostile neighbors, and of the culture and traditions (including strong centralized government) that differentiated the Old World from the New.

Arguably the most significant advance was the telegraph in the 1840’s, which as Starr notes, being the first electronic medium, “decoupled communication from transportation altogether.” The telegraph was symbiotic with the railroad: telegraphy enabled the coordination of trains sharing the same track, avoiding the cumbersome dual-track system of early English railway lines; and railroads provided the telegraph with rights-of-way for its wires. A vast amount of public land – a twelfth of the continental landmass – was granted to the railroads for those rights-of-way, a gigantic gift of the government to the marketplace. “The Creation of the Media” is a detailed account of this explosive progression, as first printing, then daily journalism, telegraphy, telephony, film, radio, and television, expanded and altered the public sphere in America, and thus changed the scope, content, and instruments of freedom of speech.

Starr doesn’t stint the darker sides of the story. These include the infamous Comstock Act of 1873, which in seeking to ban obscenity (and related vices such as abortion and contraception) led to several decades of public prudery and sexual McCarthyism, dominated by a crusader for purity named Anthony Comstock and assorted religious followers. But we also encounter the inspiring Caflin sisters, Tennessee Caflin and Victoria Caflin Woodhull, who in the 1870’s “operated a brokerage on Wall Street and used its profits to publish a weekly advocating women’s suffrage, spiritualism, and free love.” Charges against them were dismissed, but the signs were ominous: free love – and free speech – were on the wane. Even the Progressives of the early 1900’s, in their emphasis on moral purity and “social hygiene,” were not entirely free of the repressive taint.

Just when that moral crusade was wearing thin, in a nation swollen and diversified by immigration, World War I brought a new round of political oppression. The second Wilson Administration propagated a Red Scare and convicted more than one thousand Americans – nearly all political radicals – of speech crimes under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Foreign-born trouble-makers were deported. There were some odd concurrences; between the wars, as the Red Scare abated and Supreme Court rulings expanded freedom of speech and eased bans on dangerous literature, the movie industry rushed to adopt a system of self-censorship through the Hays Office and the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which remained in effect for more than 20 years. Through this system of script-vetting, a terrified reaction of Victorian morality to the graphic new visual medium of motion pictures, “Jewish moviemakers came under the censorship of the Catholic Church in a predominantly Protestant society.” Or as Mae West put it: “I like restraint as long as it doesn’t go too far.”

These various strands in the development of free expression are related in rich detail, and make for absorbing reading. Although media and First Amendment scholars have covered much of this ground before, Starr offers a concise 400-page panorama of the terrain, including the serial emergence of new media, their complex interrelations, and the crucial connection of each to its political and legal context.

In fact, politics is at the center of Starr’s universe. The central thesis of “The Creation of the Media,” to which it continually returns, is announced in the subtitle: “political origins of modern communications.” It is the idea that the American Constitutional framework, and defining political and legal decisions at “constitutive moments,” more than any natural resource, cultural advantage, or economic condition or invention, produced the vibrant communications networks that partly define American history. This thesis is well-argued, and Starr provides copious amounts of statistical evidence. In comparing the evolutionary course of political speech and communication in America to that of Europe, and marshalling broad empirical generalities to draw those distinctions, “The Creation of the Media” is sometimes suggestive of Jared Diamond’s anthropological masterpiece, “Guns, Germs and Steel.”

Without directly disputing the argument – and it has clear merit, particularly in contrasting the Old World and the New – I am not sure that all readers will find it deserving of the emphasis Starr accords it. History, as he implicitly acknowledges, is multivalent, not merely political; questions of balance, emphasis, and conceptual boundaries are difficult and sometimes imponderable. Starr is certainly right that politics is definitive in shaping the media and communications environment, both within and outside of the democratic context – even if the muscularity of his claims is sometimes supported by the steroidal use of statistics; especially in the 19th century, as more statistics becomes available, the argument is sometimes slowed by the sheer bulk of the numbers. But without a measure of intellectual artifice, one cannot isolate those constitutive political frameworks and decisions from other factors – economic, technological, cultural, religious, linguistic, geographic, demographic, and so on.

Neither can one ignore the enigmas and vagaries of personality and individual genius that may or may not explain the signal contributions of individuals such as Jefferson and Madison, Morse, Bell, Edison, Marconi, or the various inventors and improvers of modern electronic media. All are given their due here. Urging the primacy of politics is not so much wrong as unnecessary. Everything is conditioned by politics, including what government leaves alone; the dynamism as well as the dangers of markets, for example. But those other domains are part of the same causal puzzle. If political frameworks and “constitutive moments” are keystones of modern media, Starr seems to want them to bear too much of the architectural load.

Some additional cavils are worth mentioning, but they don’t detract from what this fine work has to offer. Rather, they flow from the book’s breadth and scope; in surveying so vast a territory, inevitably some things are neglected or foreshortened. The sometimes uncertain boundaries or unexplained choices reflect the complexity of the subject itself. “The Creation of the Media” is not, and doesn’t try to be, a comprehensive history of American journalism or publishing, although a good deal of that history comes along for the ride. It is both a history of communication technology – without getting too technological – and a history of freedom of speech and the First Amendment, without being legalistic. It is most of all a political and economic history of the various media themselves. In fact, the author’s demonstrable acumen in matters economic and sociological belie his claims about the political sphere.

Starr’s survey, which begins with the breakup of the licensing system for printers in late-17th century England, concludes abruptly at World War II, just as television is about to break out as a commercial medium. It is never made clear why the narrative stops there, or exactly what watershed it represents. The advent of radio, its early regulation, and its rapid progression from a not-for-profit medium to a predominantly and irreversibly commercialized one, is treated deftly and in fine detail; but television is given only cursory attention in its infancy. Likewise, we are treated to an overview of the early evolution of the movie industry, but left in the abyss of the Production Code era.

For anyone who has studied the subsequent emergence of the electronic media as a central and centrifugal political force, this is slightly disconcerting. One wishes that Starr had extended his analysis, if only to draw some general connections between his narrative and the momentous changes since World War II. These include the rise and fall of quality television drama and news and the emergence of talk radio and reality TV; the increasing concentration of media ownership, and the evisceration of federal regulations governing ownership and access; the dominant role of broadcast media in the political process, not just as a lens or filter but as the dynamic core of the process; the relentless commercialization of the media, including public television. And there is the seminal 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which, by equating campaign expenditure with political speech, allowed money to deluge the political process through the floodgates of television. In each of these areas, market forces have driven the media at the expense of democratic values.

As politics has converged with modern media, there has been a parallel convergence (as yet incomplete) between political and media theory. Starr largely ignores issues of scholarship, other than passing mention of works by Walter Lippmann and Paul Lazarsfeld. (The history of American higher education – a sector in which the United States continues to excel – is also relevant to this story). The changing and inexact nature and limits of the public sphere, and its relation to technology, literacy, and news, might have received more attention. Theodore Adorno and critical theory are too hastily dismissed; Jürgen Habermas, the leading contemporary theorist of the public sphere and communication, is never mentioned.

These are lacunae, perhaps, in view of the already ample scope and intent of this book: the creation of the media. Yet for all of the background Starr provides, the gap of the past sixty years is hard for this reader to ignore. In particular, two questions linger. First, given the many political and material advantages Americans have enjoyed in communications, why are most of us today less informed, less educated, and far less politically active, at least in terms of voting rates – and why do we consume news that is generally much inferior – compared to most Europeans. How, with our great head start, did they come to pass us – aside from adopting our inventions and techniques?

Second, there is a great historical irony that Starr addresses only obliquely. The struggle for independent publishing in the 17th and 18th centuries focused entirely on censorious governments and state monopoly of public information. The Constitution was designed to prevent this, and despite occasional lapses and flawed interpretations, it has worked pretty well. Yet the contemporary threat to independent media comes not from government but from the market place and oligopoly: from rampant commercialism, lack of diversity, and dependence on the profit motive. So in a sense the entire weight and thrust of our constitutional tradition is facing backward toward a threat that has been largely contained, and cannot deal with the threat that exists. Government cannot be trusted to provide information (it is the essence of propaganda); but commercialism and concentration degrade the news we get from the marketplace. (So, of course, does an education system that doesn’t cultivate a demand for quality news). The very idea of what is news has altered to the point that headlines scream about fictional events from the unreal world of reality television. The media need a third way; and because it depends on the quality of its news, so does our democracy. Good journalism is as important to democracy as good education. Good media networks guarantee neither.

In fact, the media system that Starr so ably outlines across a span of centuries has produced, in the present era, great new democratic quandaries. A sequel exploring those issues would handsomely complement this book. But on its own terms, “The Creation of the Media” sheds important light on America’s distinctive role in the halting progression from the politics of force and privilege to the politics of language and civic equality.  

Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of The Sound Bite Society (1999) and an occasional contributor to Dissent.