Book Review:

Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications
(New York, NY: Basic Books, 2004)

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 insightful history of media. For persons 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 4000-5000 Nickelodeons and developed a weekly attendance of at least 16 million persons. 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 result, however, was not ultimately a de-concentrated, de-politicized industry. The association of movies with "mere entertainment," along with production possibilities being limited by rising costs for lengthy feature films and talkies, led to movies being subject to practices of censorship that contrast sharply with freedom of expression in print. Concern to manage effectively censorship spurred creation in 1922 of the forerunner of today's Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), one of the most politically influential organizations in Washington. The book notes that concern for expressive unity during World War I went to the extreme degree of suppressing the Spirit of '76, a film about the American Revolution, because its harsh portrayal of British soldiers' actions might, according to a judge, "make us a little bit slack in our loyalty to Great Britain." (p. 316). Some Catholic intellectuals, seizing the opportunity that depressed industry conditions presented in 1929, pushed forward a Motion Picture Production Code that the industry would supposedly self-administer. This code emphasized correctly distinguishing between good and evil. Fearing that persons might fail to make this distinction, or not even acknowledge it, the code stated that evil can be presented in a film only if "throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right." (p. 321) Of course this code was ineffective.

An ensuing step was high politics of a gross sort. The Bishop of Los Angeles arranged in 1933 for the president of Bank America and a lawyer to tell top Hollywood Studio leaders, who were Jewish, to enforce the code or else the Catholic Church would publicly attack them. Starr notes that this threat was accompanied with warnings about "dirty motion pictures"; about "the predominance of Jews among 'communistic radicals'"; about public sympathy for the Nazis, who six months earlier had seized power in Germany; and about the risk of "build[ing] up an enormous case against the Jews in the eyes of the American people." (p. 323) All but one of the producers verbally acquiesced. Nonetheless, a few months later, the Catholic bishops voted to organize a mass movement against immoral pictures. This movement won effective control of the political censorship apparatus, but apparently had little effect on Catholics' movie-going behavior.

Even given so much important history about the movies, one can ask for more. The difference between the Catholic bishops' actions and the movie-going behavior of Catholics indicates that a simplistic understanding of the Catholic Church as a political actor, rather prevalent in U.S. scholarly literature for historically understandable reasons, can be misleading. The movies provided persons with a new, popular experience of being physically and narratively unified as spectators. How this aspect of movies affected Catholic Christians' understandings of themselves as a body might have been explored.

Similarly, what it meant to Jews to be Jewish in the U.S. in the beginning of the twentieth century cannot be taken for granted. Marcus Loew, William Fox, and Adolph Zukor, Jews who became leaders in the U.S. movie industry, had German ethnic roots and came to the U.S. prior to 1890. In contrast, movie industry leaders Louis B. Mayer (Lazar Meir), Jack Warner (Jack Leonard Eichelbaum), and Samuel Goldwyn (Schmuel Gelbfisz) had roots in more traditional Jewish communities in Poland and Russia. They were part of the large wave of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia who came to the U.S. after 1890. These were immigrants that were attracted to the many Nickelodeons that by 1908 had sprung up in Jewish neighborhoods of Lower East Side Manhattan. The earlier German Jewish immigrants and the latter Polish-Russian Jewish immigrants came from Jewish communities that had much different lived relationship to Jewish law (halakhah) and different approaches to serving God in one's daily life. Discussion of how the attraction of the movies contributed to working out the patterns of Jewish life in the new world of the U.S. would have helped to give the discussion of Jewish movie producers a richer historical and political texture.

While the history of the movies provides a fascinating example of the interaction of a medium and politics, 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 give 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 persons 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, Aug. 2004.

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