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Creation of American media affected by politics as much as technology

By Cynthia Yoder

Princeton NJ -- The media, with its scandals, oversized personalities and power, has become an institution that Americans both revere and despise, often in the same breath. In his new book, sociology professor Paul Starr investigates the history of this complex institution, teasing out the influences that shaped the media we know today.


Professor of Sociology Paul Starr, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for "The Social Transformation of American Medicine," turns to another powerful institution, the American media, in his new book.


"The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications," published this spring by Basic Books, is a 483-page account of how political decisions led to the media's creation as a powerful and profitable institution. Starting in 17th-century Europe and colonial America and ending at World War II, Starr's book reveals how the decisions made in the United States gave rise to America's burgeoning communications empire.

Like his previous work, "The Social Transformation of American Medicine," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, Starr's new book is concerned with the shaping of a powerful institution and its expression of and departure from democratic ideals.

"Technology and economics cannot alone explain the system of communications we have inherited or the one we are creating," he writes in the book's introduction. "The communications media have so direct a bearing on the exercise of power that their development is impossible to understand without taking politics fully into account, not simply in the use of the media, but in the making of constitutive choices about them."

Political decisions will continue to influence the shape of the media for generations to come, he says, not only in this country but around the world.

"The global influence of the American media and the American model now puts an even heavier responsibility on the United States than in the past," he writes. "History is no basis for a complacent triumph-alism about American technology and institutions, especially if the original grounds of policy are forgotten. Freedom is at stake now in the choices about communications as it was at the founding of the republic."

The first news network

Starr points to the postal system in early America and its support of newspaper distribution as one example of political influence. He shows how America handled newspaper distribution in a dramatically different way than Europe, leading to the tremendous proliferation of newspapers in the early republic.

In late 18th-century Europe, governments taxed newspapers, while the U.S. government not only gave newspaper companies cheap postal rates, but allowed them to exchange publications with each other free of postal charge.

"What the government did was to underwrite the creation of a news network," Starr says. "The postal system was comprehensive, reaching into every village, extending out into the West. By contrast, European postal networks connected only the capitals and the major commercial centers."

Furthermore, newspapers in Europe didn't have a categorical right to be distributed through the postal service, while in the United States they circulated without censure. Given these advantages, newspaper circulation by 1840 was higher in the United States than in any other country. The American press and public sphere were also far more decentralized than in the major European states.

Starr points out that this rapid development of communications happened before America was a world power. Despite the fact that the country was no proven leader in science, Starr notes, "there is a persistent pattern through the 19th century of very rapid development of new communications technologies and a high rate of innovation in this area. The institutional, political and legal framework was highly favorable to their development."

According to Starr, this environment was created out of political concern. The desire to have a comprehensive postal network that reached into the West was partly in response to the concern that people across this vast country would cohere. The decision to allow all not just some newspapers use of this network was to prevent the government from manipulating the press and public opinion.

The unsolved dilemma of monopoly

Later developments found America institutionally and intellectually unprepared, Starr notes. In the mid-19th century, the telegraph replaced the postal system for the distribution of national news. In the United States, this technology developed commercially, with one company, Western Union, in control. At the time, Western Union had an exclusive relationship with the Associated Press and would not carry any other news services.

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"Ironically," Starr says, "this private commercial network became the basis for limiting the distribution of national news. Governmental control through the post office had provided the basis for a more pluralistic news system."

It was only decades later that anti-trust law began to take shape. But, as Starr points out, the fundamental problem still exists today.

"In the late 18th century, the idea was that the press could be people's guardian," Starr notes. "The press could help check abuses of power. That's still very much the idea and still is largely true. But what that original vision didn't anticipate was the extent to which the press and other media could become a substantial power in and of themselves. And when that power becomes highly concentrated, it poses new problems for democracy."

Starr cites the 1996 Congressional decision to pass a communications law that abolished any limit on the number of radio stations a company could own. The media giant Clear Channel now owns more than 1,200 radio stations. "We have areas in the country where there is really a lock on control of radio," Starr notes.


New book to be symposium subject

Professor of Sociology Paul Starr will participate in a symposium on his new book, "The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications," at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, May 6, in 1 Robertson Hall.

Other speakers will include: Nicholas Lemann, dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University; Eli Noam, professor of economics and finance at the Columbia Business School; Annabel Patterson, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University; and Michael Schudson, professor of communications at the University of California-San Diego.

The event is sponsored by the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.



Given this narrowing of control, along with the expanded scope and lengthened term of copyright, as well as other changes, Starr observes, "A relatively small number of companies own more of our culture than ever before."

A book born of twin interests

"The Creation of the Media" emerges from Starr's lifetime involvement in American media. As an undergraduate student at Columbia University, he edited The Spectator, the undergraduate student newspaper. From there, he wrote magazine articles, taught courses in communications at Princeton and co-founded The American Prospect in 1990 with Robert Kuttner. The magazine, started as a quarterly, is now monthly and has two Web sites, <Web site> and <Web site>.

In addition, Starr is president of the Sandra Starr Foundation, named in memory of his first wife, who was a member of the Princeton Borough Council. The foundation was created to support the improvement of local community life and political leadership.

Starr concludes "The Creation of the Media" with the year 1941 and America's entry into World War II when the media already had taken shape as a powerful institution. As he notes at the end of his book, any discussion of the media following World War II would have to be framed in an international context.

"Whereas the primacy of the nation-state had earlier been the overarching reality," Starr writes, "many of the crucial decisions about communications and the media would now be made in an international context."

Starr says that he may entertain the idea of a sequel, but it's not an immediate ambition. There are other books whose nature he is not revealing just now in formation.