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The Creation of the Media: The Political Origins of Modern Communication (Art of Mentoring Series)


America's leading role in today's information revolution may seem simply to reflect its position as the world's dominant economy and most powerful state. But by the early nineteenth century, when the United States was neither a world power nor a primary center of scientific discovery, it was already a leader in communications-in postal service and newspaper publishing, then in development of the telegraph and telephone networks, later in the whole repertoire of mass communications.In this wide-ranging social ...

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America's leading role in today's information revolution may seem simply to reflect its position as the world's dominant economy and most powerful state. But by the early nineteenth century, when the United States was neither a world power nor a primary center of scientific discovery, it was already a leader in communications-in postal service and newspaper publishing, then in development of the telegraph and telephone networks, later in the whole repertoire of mass communications.In this wide-ranging social history of American media, from the first printing press to the early days of radio, Paul Starr shows that the creation of modern communications was as much the result of political choices as of technological invention. His original historical analysis reveals how the decisions that led to a state-run post office and private monopolies on the telegraph and telephone systems affected a developing society. He illuminates contemporary controversies over freedom of information by exploring such crucial formative issues as freedom of the press, intellectual property, privacy, public access to information, and the shaping of specific technologies and institutions. America's critical choices in these areas, Starr argues, affect the long-run path of development in a society and have had wide social, economic, and even military ramifications. The Creation of the Media not only tells the history of the media in a new way; it puts America and its global influence into a new perspective.

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Editorial Reviews

James Fallows
The Creation of the Media is so thick with detail and careful in nuance that it is completely convincing as a work of scholarship. In this it resembles Starr's celebrated Social Transformation of American Medicine, published over 20 years ago. But more than that book, this one can also be read as instrumental history -- a version of the past with clear operational implications for the future.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this engrossing, panoramic history of the development of American media, Pulitzer winner Starr (The Social Transformation of American Medicine) ranges from our nation's founding, when the Constitution made the postal service the one nationalized industry and the Bill of Rights denied the federal government any role in regulating the press, to the eve of WWII, when commercial radio broadcasting flourished under very different cultural, political and economic conditions. Throughout, Starr shows that our country's original impulse to promote the postal service and press as part of its vision of nation building established a pattern of support for an open, continent-wide market that would assume different forms and policies as new waves of media were introduced. Starr brilliantly argues, however, that the government preference for keeping things decentralized was finally challenged by the advent of the telegraph, as its technology and associated economies of scale centralized the communications industry. Confronting thorny new issues of monopoly and threats to the guaranteed rights of free expression and individual privacy, the country then had no choice but to take on a regulatory role. Starr vividly demonstrates how complicated that role became with media like motion pictures and broadcasting, as the nation experienced immigration, urbanization and major cultural shifts: suddenly, counter forces in favor of moral regulation were petitioning the government to use all of its power to restrain mass media. The culture wars had begun. Agent, Bill Leigh. (Apr. 15) Forecast: The striking parallels in Starr's sweeping and authoritative study to such current hot topics as the USA Patriot Act, FCC licensing procedures and the media role in political campaigns should draw the attention of serious readers. An author tour, national ad campaign and NPR coverage could expand interest further. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Since Colonial times, political forces and institutions have had a profound influence on the development of U.S. communication systems. Starr (sociology, Princeton), whose Social Transformation of American Medicine won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1984, once again demonstrates his ability to treat a complex subject thoroughly yet succinctly. For each medium discussed, from newspapers through television, he explains how the political and social climate determined the choices made. He frequently compares the U.S. and European approaches to media development; the U.S. tendency has been toward decentralization and privatization, while European governments have sought to concentrate media control in a central agency. The book's title doesn't disclose this strictly Western focus. However, as Starr points out, "the American model of privately owned, competitively driven communications" has influenced the development of media throughout the world. Starr's survey stops before the end of World War II, but he makes a strong case that political choices continue to play a major role in media development. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Susan M. Colowick, Timberland Regional Lib., Tumwater, WA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The creation of the American media, that is-a process that, as argued here, helped forward the country's rise as an economic and political power. The Founding Fathers are to be credited for their attention to the media, argues American Prospect co-editor and Pulitzer Prize winner Starr (Sociology/Princeton; The Social Transformation of American Medicine, not reviewed) suggests, by which he means the press, cinema, broadcasting, and postal and telecommunications system. That interest led to contradictions: although they wished to see state authority restrained, checked, and balanced, the founders also created constitutional provisions that "illustrate the apparent polarities of a limited and interventionist state: Although the Bill of Rights denied the federal government any authority to regulate the press, the Constitution made the Post Office the one nationalized industry." Wisely, however, they allowed relative freedom elsewhere in the network of communications, establishing liberal copyright laws and encouraging decentralization generally. Starr remarks that in 1991, when it dissolved, the Soviet Union had far fewer telephones than did the nations of the West, for the Soviet regime had instead invested in loudspeakers, which "allowed the state to communicate with the people" but not vice versa. With each wave of technological discovery, Starr holds, the federal government preferred broad private to public control, as when it privatized the telegraph industry in the 1840s and imposed antitrust regulations on the telephone company as early as 1907; this preference has allowed the media to serve as economic engines. At the same time, the government has taken an activist role incontrolling the media in broad-stroke terms: for instance, it imposed "moral regulation" on the press after the Civil War and banished British interests from the radio industry after WWI, placing it "entirely under American control." This pattern, at once laissez-faire and controlling, has held into the Internet age, an era that lies beyond the scope of present study. A sequel, please. Agent: Bill Leigh
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465081936
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/29/2004
  • Series: Art of Mentoring Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Starr is Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and its Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. He is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Social Transformation of American Medicine and The Creation of the Media. Starr is the co-founder and editor of The American Prospect. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt


Political Origins of Modern Communications
By Paul Starr


Copyright © 2004 Paul Starr
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-465-08193-2

Chapter One

Early Modern Origins

COMMUNICATIONS in Europe and America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries underwent a radical transformation, but not because of any revolution in communications technology. A printer from the 1500s magically catapulted into a print shop of the late 1700s would have found hand-operated, wooden presses little altered from his own time. Viewed from the standpoint of social practices, politics, and institutions, however, the change in communications was enormous. Europe and its American colonies saw the introduction of regular, publicly available postal service; the first newspapers, scientific journals, and other periodicals appeared and, along with them, journalism emerged in its earliest forms. Commercial expansion, religious conflict, and the rise of more powerful nation-states altered the economic and political context of communications. While states generally sought to control information, they were not entirely successful; internal conflicts and the structure of the international system permitted more autonomous forms of communication even before free expression received legal protection. The market for print expanded, and the law of intellectual property began to take its modern shape. Most important, out of these developments a new sphere of public information, public debate, and public opinion emerged.

What was this new public sphere? Part of the difficulty in defining it lies in the ambiguity of the word "public." In one sense, public is to private as open is to closed, as when we speak of making something public. In another sense, public is to private as the whole is to the part, as when we speak of the public health or public interest, meaning the health or interest of the whole of the people as opposed to that of a class or individual. The term "public sphere" combines both senses when conceived (as it will be here) as the sphere of openly accessible information and communication about matters of general social concern.

Before 1600, the sheer underdevelopment of communications networks impeded flows of information and the development of a public sphere. To be sure, news and other information circulated by word of mouth, via privately carried letters and scribal publications, through ballads relating current events, and in occasional pamphlets and other printed works, but the absence of postal service and periodicals such as newspapers presented severe limitations. Regular means of exchange and publication provide not only a stream of fresh information but also the opportunity to respond to events as they unfold, to engage in the back-and-forth of debate, and to sustain relationships and affiliations. Publications weave invisible threads of connection among their readers. Once a newspaper circulates, for example, no one ever truly reads it alone. Readers know that others are also seeing it at roughly the same time, and they read it differently as a result, conscious that the information is now out in the open, spread before a public that may talk about the news and act on it. Without a regular flow of communication, it is difficult to develop this sense of a public that extends beyond the limits of a local, face-to-face community.

Not only did European societies before 1600 lack the necessary communication networks for a public sphere; there were also normative and political barriers to its formation. Under the prevailing principles of political communication, ordinary people were not properly concerned with government; according to an English royal proclamation drafted by Francis Bacon in 1620, matters of state were "not themes or subjects fit for vulgar persons or common meetings." The privilege of discussing politics belonged exclusively to the few who could speak in government councils, and these discussions were supposed to be confidential. In England it was a crime to divulge parliamentary proceedings. The norms of discussion and decision-making in Parliament itself were also consensual rather than adversarial; open disagreements and organized political alignments were avoided. The development of the public sphere required the breakdown of "norms of secrecy and privilege" and the open acknowledgment and acceptance of political differences.

In short, if a public sphere was to emerge-and no inexorable force of progress dictated that it would-two conditions had to be met: the creation of a new network infrastructure and the collapse of old norms, if not the fashioning of new ones. The rise of capitalism, with attendant increases in the circulation of commodities and information, contributed particularly to overcoming the infrastructural barriers. Markets themselves are information networks, and expanding commerce opened up new channels of communication. As printing and bookselling developed, information itself increasingly became a commodity. "One fact must not be lost sight of: the printer and the bookseller worked above all and from the beginning for profit," write Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin of the early history of the book in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Continually searching for new markets, printers and booksellers extended distribution networks and enlarged the reading public. In a variety of ways, state policy also created the bases of the public sphere. States reduced the infrastructural barriers to communications by developing roads and postal systems. Traditionally patrons of the arts, states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also became patrons of the sciences and sponsors of learned academies and publications as they sought to centralize power in its symbolic as well as material forms.

But neither the rise of capitalism nor state-building guaranteed a change in norms of secrecy about governmental proceedings or the development of openly accessible channels of public discussion. Ruling elites not only exercised direct control of print through censorship and surveillance but also sought to shape the organization of the book trade and the press to ensure that the dominant interests in publishing were aligned with those of the state. In the early phases of development (until 1695 in England and 1789 in France), states pursued this objective by granting privileges and monopolies to a limited number of favored printers and booksellers, who then shared the state's interest in suppressing illegal publications. Later, high taxes and other costs imposed on publishers by the state helped to limit the popular press. Since state policies both fostered and inhibited the public sphere, the role of the state does not lend itself to a simple generalization. If states had always been coherent, systematic, and effective, they might have created a sphere only of official ideology. But because their domination was far from single-minded and complete, something else was possible.

The Diffusion and Control of Print

The advent of printing around 1450 is the paradigmatic example of change in information technology, yet it was equally a change in economic organization. The production of manuscripts had been chiefly a monastic function, though commercial stationers in the later stages of the manuscript era began to produce and sell hand-copied books in quantities of up to several hundreds. Had monasteries remained dominant in the era of the movable-type press, they would not have had the same incentives as commercial printers to expand the uses of print, and the technology might not have had the effects so widely attributed to it. But from the time of Gutenberg, printing was organized commercially, and as the technology spread, so did a capitalist framework in the book trade.

Publishing was associated with capitalism in part because the industry itself was a prime instance of capitalist development. It took considerable capital to finance not only the equipment in a shop but also the paper and other costs of production while awaiting sales, which were often slow in coming. The dependence on capital drew printing to cities where finance was available and created pressures to adapt the physical and cultural form of the book to wider markets. The earliest printed books, like the manuscripts that served as their models, were large, cumbersome folios written in Latin primarily for the clergy, the universities, and high officials. Printers and others acting as publishers had incentives, however, to find new texts they could sell, to bring them out in more portable sizes (the printed book was the original laptop), and to simplify typefaces and other elements to improve readability. Thus, the early book trade became divided between weighty volumes for the learned and "small-size literary or polemical works for a larger public." Print could reach a wider public than manuscripts had because of lower costs; by 1470, according to one estimate, the same text cost between 50 percent and 80 percent less in print than in manuscript. Nonetheless, in early modern Europe, the market for print comprised only a small fraction of the population because of the limits of both literacy and income, as well as high distribution costs due to the primitive condition of transport and communication.

Religious ideas and conflict contributed to the spread of print culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Beginning in 1517 in Germany, the Protestant Reformation unleashed a tremendous surge in printing for two separate reasons. First, it set in motion a process that would later be repeated many times: the antagonistic expansion of a medium. Protestant leaders regarded the printing press as a means of propagating the truth and created their own presses to disseminate their belief; theirs was the first transformative movement in history spread, to a large extent, through the vehicle of print. With the Counter-Reformation beginning around 1570, Catholics also turned to the press; in the antagonistic expansion of a medium, even the reluctant side in a conflict has no other choice but to adopt more powerful means of persuasion. Second, by calling on the faithful to read the Bible, Protestantism elevated the importance of literacy. The effort to incorporate reading into everyday lay religious practice was halting at first, but in the seventeenth century it gathered force with Pietism in Germany and Puritanism in England. The positive association of Protestantism and economic development probably also contributed to the more rapid growth of literacy rates and the book trade in Protestant areas.

Both the economic and the religious forces in the growth of printing helped to shape the international map of print. The geographically dispersed demand for books led to the early development of an international book trade; in the sixteenth century, fairs at Lyons and Frankfurt became important venues for the traffic in print. From its infancy, publishing was cosmopolitan, and a division of labor developed between the center and periphery of the trade. The early centers of publishing in Germany, Italy, and Holland dominated the production of texts in Latin that were originally the chief articles of international exchange, while publishers in the periphery specialized in the vernacular. England, which fell on the periphery of the European economy when William Caxton introduced printing in 1476 exemplified the pattern. Since continental printers could supply tomes in Latin more cheaply, the first printers in England concentrated on legal and literary texts in English.

Religious conflict added another dimension to center-periphery relationships. As states and established churches sought to restrict heretical publications, they drove dissenters to other countries. The flight of the Huguenots from France in the late seventeenth century contributed to Holland's role as a center of Protestant publishing; similarly, English dissenters went across the channel to Holland to have their work printed. Extraterritorial publishers, moreover, found a market for the books and journals they produced all over Europe. Amsterdam became a center of Jewish publishing also because of an influx of refugees. As the lingua franca of the "republic of letters" changed from Latin to French in the seventeenth century, the Netherlands became a center of French-language publishing beyond the reach of the French state. The development of such extraterritorial and transnational publishing complicated the efforts of states to control the printed word. It meant that rulers faced two distinct tasks: controlling domestic printers and regulating the influx of print across their borders.

Although some governments had originally sought to attract printers in the late 1400s, the policing of print became a focus of state interest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Control eventually extended across the entire sequence of activities, from the initial production or importation of texts through their distribution, and involved both religious and secular authorities. In 1543, the Catholic Church banned all books except those that had its approval, and in 1559 it issued its first Index of Forbidden Books. The long-run trend, however, in Protestant and Catholic countries alike, was toward centralized control in the hands of the state. Through several steps culminating in a proclamation in 1538, Henry VIII established a licensing system for all books in English. During the sixteenth century, the English government also prosecuted those responsible for troublesome publications on such grounds as treason, heresy, and "false news" concerning the magnates of the realm (Scandalum Magnatum), though licensing proved the most efficient means of control. In a series of measures in France between 1535 and 155l, the king banned all books except those approved by censors and prohibited the importation of books from Protestant countries. Absolutism regarded censorship as a royal prerogative and open political debate as unthinkable, although the practice of censorship was often less systematic than the theory and law suggested.

A key feature of policy in both England and France was the alignment of the dominant groups in the trade with the aims of the state. The control of any industry is likely to be more effective when enforcement becomes endogenous-that is, when those who run the industry have strong incentives to make state policy their own. This was the effect of state-granted monopolies and privileges in printing. In England, the Company of Stationers received a charter from the crown in 1557 that conferred on its members the exclusive right to own a press. Since the members of the company had to be freemen of London, this provision effectively kept printing centralized in the capital, an arrangement preferred by the government because it facilitated censorship. A series of other measures up through 1586 also had the purpose of limiting access to the press to a small number of people whom the government considered reliable.


Excerpted from THE CREATION OF THE MEDIA by Paul Starr Copyright © 2004 by Paul Starr. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: The Political Origins of Modern Communications 1
Revolutions as Constitutive Moments 4
Communications and Power 7
The Path of American Development 12
Part I The Opening of the Public Sphere, 1600-1860
Chapter 1 Early Modern Origins 23
The Diffusion and Control of Print 25
Networks and News 30
England's Opening 33
France and the Transnational Public 41
The De Facto Public Sphere 45
Chapter 2 New Foundations 47
Colonial Legacies 49
The Revolution and the Public Sphere 62
Constitutional Choices 71
Why Rights Mattered 77
Chapter 3 America's First Information Revolution 83
The Creation of the News Network 84
Privacy and Public Knowledge 94
The Democratization of Competence 99
An American Revolution in Communications 107
Chapter 4 Capitalism and Democracy in Print 113
Publishing and the Limits of Copyright 115
The Revolution of Cheap Print 123
New Publics, New Markets 130
Center and Periphery in Antebellum America 139
The Consequences of Political Choice 146
Part II The Rise of Technological Networks, 1840-1930
Chapter 5 The First Wire 153
A Path for the Telegraph 155
Monopoly on the Wires 165
Wiring the News 177
Chapter 6 New Connections: Telephone, Cable, and Wireless 191
A Path for the Telephone 192
The Technology of Civil Society 200
Hello, Regulation 205
Wires, Waves, and Lines of Innovation 212
Communications and Strategic Advantage 222
Part III The Making of the Modern Media, 1865-1941
Chapter 7 Great Transformations: The Early Mass Media and the Diversity Dynamic 233
The Rise of Moral Censorship 235
Diversity and Daily Journalism 250
Politics, Markets, and Magazines 260
The Local and Oppositional Press 262
Chapter 8 The Rediscovery of the First Amendment 267
Free Speech Becomes a Cause 268
War as a Generative Crisis 274
The Liberal Turn of the Twenties 286
Chapter 9 The Framing of the Movies 295
The Path to the Nickelodeon 296
Censorship and Diversity on the Screen 305
The Consolidation of Control 315
Chapter 10 The Constitution of the Air (1): The Origins of Broadcasting 327
Clashes in the Ether 330
Divergent Paths 339
Chapter 11 The Constitution of the Air (2): Creating the New Public Sphere 347
New Networks, New Powers 348
Censorship and Diversity on the Dial 363
Politics and the New Public Sphere 370
Networks and News 376
Chapter 12 Coda: The Advent of the Media 385
The Sources of Media Power 388
The Media and Democracy 395
Notes 403
Index 471
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2004

    Highly Recommended!

    International in scope, immensely detailed and authoritative, this study successfully incorporates the evolution of technology, laws, political policy and social development to put the origins of modern media into context. This historical perspective is long overdue. Since media development is actually the story of societal development, author Paul Starr does a tremendous job of detailing the roles of such diverse factors as innovation, invention, patronage, luck, law and competition, all of which shaped the media's development and helped determine its ultimate societal impact. This book is refreshingly light on political criticism, so each set of facts stands on its own. While Starr occasionally meanders from the main topic, the book's rich detail shows that he clearly enjoyed his research and writing. We consider his book essential reading for anyone interested in new and old media and how they were ¿ and are ¿ influenced by their societies.

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