Political Origins of Modern Communications
by Paul Starr
New York: Basic Books, 2004 484 pp. $27.50
America’s unfinished journey toward democracy had uncertain beginnings. The very formation of our government involved a moral compromise with slavery, which ultimately failed; and the Constitution gave undue power to the less populous states in both the Senate and the Electoral College. But as Princeton sociologist Paul Starr reminds us, the Framers did get a few things right. In addition to securing the liberties expected by former British subjects, the Constitution-and specifically the First Amendment-led to both gradual and dramatic expansions of public discourse. By the early nineteenth century, 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 United States than in England or the Continent. The political and legal climate was surely one reason for this, as was the absence of hostile neighbors, of political and linguistic fragmentation, 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 1840s, 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 land mass-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, telegra...
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