(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There is a good chance that browsers in a bookstore will be surprised when they read the dust jacket of Paul Starr's The Creation of the Media. Surely the title and its provocative subtitle, “Political Origins of Modern Communications,” suggest that the noted Princeton sociologist has turned his analytical talents to an examination of a topic most twenty-first century Americans consider timely: The bombardment of political advertisements and commentary on radio and television, over the Internet, and through newspapers, mailings, magazines, and other print and broadcast sources has made everyone aware of the pivotal role the media plays in informing voters about key issues. The pervasiveness of the media has also been instrumental in laying bare the personalities of politicians, few of whom can claim to have squeaky-clean records in either their professional or personal lives.

The Creation of the Media, however, does not address any of those issues—at least, not directly. Instead, Starr travels back in time to examine ways “the media”—forms of communication used to transmit information and influence the public—developed in America from colonial times until the United States entered World War II. Rather than concentrate on the impact of the Internet, Starr looks at the forms of technology that revolutionized the transmission of facts and opinions and helped shape democratic government in the United States long before computer-assisted technologies became commonplace. By way of contrast, he offers briefer assessments of such forms of communication as they developed in Western Europe, particularly England, France, and Germany.

As Starr illustrates cogently, the different means used by governments to control (or fail to control) forms of communication not only shaped the growth of the industry but also determined the shape of government in the United States and on the European continent. He says there is need for such a historical review as the United States enters the twenty-first century, because for almost two hundred years the United States “has played a singular role” in developing communications and protecting from retribution those who carried out their public function of “opening up the government to public scrutiny.” Because the industrial age has already given way to the so-called information society, making informed political choices about the role of communications in society is imperative.

Starr's premise is that “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.” He sees the growth of communications vehicles in America as having occurred in three broad, overlapping periods: the years during which America was a colony until the outbreak of the Civil War; the decades between the Civil War and the onset of the Great Depression, during which the country experienced significant growth in what Starr calls technological networks; and the years from the end of the Civil War until 1941, when modern media emerged. During each period, Starr argues, government played a distinct role in shaping the media's development, sometimes through active participation in supporting technological advances, sometimes through benign neglect so that marketplace competition could drive growth and improvement.

Predictably, much of Starr's early analysis involves a review of the rise of political journalism in colonial America. He stresses the role that education played in preparing colonists to participate in political debate. Ideas spread through the schools in New England and later in the mid-Atlantic states gave colonists the tools to engage in the war of ideas that eventually led to war in fact. When Starr turns his discussion to attempts by political leaders in the new United States to determine the proper role of government in shaping and controlling the means of disseminating information, he offers some intriguing observations. Certainly, he acknowledges, the constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and...

(The entire section is 1709 words.)