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The Political Origins of Modern Communications

by Paul Starr

Pub Date: April 15th, 2004
ISBN: 0-465-08193-2
Publisher: Basic

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 in controlling 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.