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The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications

Author(s):Starr, Paul
Reviewer(s):Galbi, Douglas

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. New York: Basic Books, 2004. xii + 484 pp. $27.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-465-08193-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Douglas Galbi, Federal Communications Commission.

Economic history has tended to focus on production of objects rather than on communication among persons. Because production is easier to isolate from politics than communication, concern for intellectual discipline encourages a focus on production. Competing for attention vigorously and at times destructively, academics might also feel more comfortable distancing competition into an economy of objects. Paul Starr, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, has boldly written a history of communications that openly embraces politics and advances understanding of competition in communication. The Creation of the Media might win him another Pulitzer Prize, to go with the one he won for an earlier book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine.

The Creation of the Media describes how politics shaped the development of print, the postal system, the telegraph, telephone, movies, and radio in the U.S. from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The book is primarily about the U.S., but it often develops points and insights using comparisons with European countries, particularly Britain and France. By emphasizing political values, the book brings out continuities between newspapers and the postal system, and latter media institutions. Most of the book (six chapters) covers history related to print, while the telegraph, the telephone, the movies, regulation of radio use, and radio networks each get one chapter. The book does not break new ground with primary sources; rather, it synthesizes a wide range of knowledge into an insightful history of media. For those interested in a particular medium, individual chapters can be profitably read independently.

One of the best chapters in the book is Chapter 9, “The Framing of the Movies.” The history of movies tends to be disciplined into economic, political, and cultural history. Drawing on a wide range of historical literature, Starr creates a more interesting and more revealing history. He narrates how an East Coast, Anglo-Protestant elite (including Thomas Edison and George Eastman) lost out in competition with mainly Jewish entrepreneurs. The rise of the “Nickelodeon” — cheap, small theaters offering short films along with music entertainment — is like a business dream that didn’t bomb. From June 1905 to November 1907, entrepreneurs opened four to five thousand Nickelodeons and developed a weekly attendance of at least sixteen million. At the same time, to control this new business opportunity the major U.S. producers of cameras, projectors, film, and movies formed a business combination, along with major foreign producers who at that time supplied two-thirds of the films released in the U.S. The entrepreneurs prevailed through landmark antitrust cases and business strategy innovations that drew upon their superior knowledge of how to entertain working-class, immigrant customers.

The most important historical theme of the book might be the distinctive development trajectory of new technological networks in the U.S. In the U.S., many new, private, competing firms drove developments in the telegraph, telephone, movies, and radio. In Europe, these new technologies were kept much more closely tied to established media institutions that governments controlled. Over time, however, new U.S. network industries have tended toward dominance by a single firm or a closely cooperating small group of large firms. The resulting concentration of private power in media is typically subject to at least formally extensive government regulation. This history suggests to me that promoting private enterprise and competition have not been effective and enduring political choices on their own in U.S. media. Instead, an effective and enduring political choice has been for media change. Political choices to promote new modes of communication have been one key to the continual renewal of private, competing, media institutions that serve democracy rather than dominate it.

Another over-arching historical theme of the book is that the relatively extensive development of media in the U.S. traces back to the early growth of the nation. The British stamp tax on the American colonies in 1765 provoked a political storm not just because it was taxation without representation, but more specifically because it threatened serious damage to the press in the U.S. Colonial resistance to the stamp act helped to produce enduring political support for independent newspapers. The Post Office Act of 1792 gave newspapers discounted mailing rates and encouraged rapid extension of postal routes throughout the U.S. By 1831, three-fourths of the federal civilian workforce worked for the Post Office, and the U.S had about five times more post offices per person than Great Britain, and about twenty times more than France (p. 88). Postal policy thus supported the development of a national information economy and public sphere. Competition between two national political parties beginning in 1828 spurred the development of new, partisan newspapers. This political structure pushed forward newspapers as sources of political discussion independent from ongoing government institutions. The American Revolution gave birth to a nation that from the beginning fostered the development of communications and the public sphere.

The Creation of the Media surely ranks as one of the best comprehensive histories of U.S. media. Some readers might find uninspired the introduction and conclusion of the book. These emphasize “constitutive choices,” but don’t discuss actual decision processes or clearly specify particular choices in the past or in the future. References to mid-twentieth century circumstances as “modern media” or “modern communications” might be irritating to those thinking about new media developments such as blogs, social networking software, and camera phones. But these are merely issues of packaging and marketing. Any person interested in what American democracy means for communications policy, institutions, and technology can profit from reading this book.

Douglas Galbi is a Senior Economist at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The opinions and interpretations in this review are his. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the FCC, its Commissioners, or any staff other than him. His recent work, “Sense in Communication” (publicly available at, draws on study of living organisms, artistic masterpieces, and media history to consider how different sensuous forms of communication, such as text messaging, voice telephony, and image exchanging, create value in communications.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII