The Creation of the Media | Paul Starr

Summary of: The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications
By: Paul Starr


Embark on a captivating journey through the evolution of media and communications in ‘The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications’ by Paul Starr. This summary illuminates the history of print media, from the era of early manuscripts to the rapid growth of mass media. Discover how the Reformation, literacy rates, postal systems, and the American Revolution contributed to shaping the media landscape we know today. Unravel the political and economic factors that influenced the development of telegraphs, telephones, radio, and film. In a world dominated by modern communication, this summary serves as an insightful guide to understanding the origins and growth of the media that has shaped and continues to shape our lives.

The Evolution of Print Media and Communications

Since the beginning of printing in the Western world around 1450, publishing has rapidly expanded from hand-copied books in limited quantities to widespread distribution channels. The religious conflict fomented by the Protestant Reformation in 1517 helped the printers’ cause as they relied on the printing press to promulgate their theology, becoming perhaps the first reform movement in history to use print to promote its cause.

The advent of printing in 1450 was a paradigmatic example of change in information technology, yet it was equally a change in economic organization. Private postal networks linked much of Europe in the late 1400s and early 1500s, aided by state postal systems in France and England. These postal links helped create news networks with correspondents who provided economic and political news, which gave rise to commercial newsletters printing commodity prices and exchange rates as early as the late 1500s.

Newspapers were banned in England until 1636, and their development accelerated as the English revolution brewed. As of 1712, some 20 weekly papers were being published in London, and by 1620, seven major European cities had weekly newspapers. After the Revolution, a distinctively American communications framework developed which both borrowed from and rejected Britain’s legacy.

The US model was based on a broad postal system, commercial printers, high literacy rates, numerous newspapers, and civic involvement. The wider availability of published material was accompanied by increased literacy and broader access to education. The government also established a procedure to conduct a national census, publish those results, and protect participant’s identity.

Unlike European governments, the US government subsidized newspapers rather than taxing them, which made newspapers cheaper and more accessible. The defining features of the twentieth-century liberal state were not only its greater power and scale but also new and stricter limits on its power so as to protect what came to be called ‘civil liberties’.

The Telecommunications Revolution

The electric telegraph’s invention in the 1840s revolutionized global communication, yielding significant technological and political impacts in America and Europe. In the US, the government initially funded the telegraph’s construction, connecting Baltimore and Washington with Samuel Morse’s invention. Although many suggested that the US Postal Service should own the telegraph, it was considered a novelty with little mundane commercial value, resulting in leading politicians deciding against massive government-sponsored infrastructure. Instead, newspaper publishers took an interest in the telegraph as an excellent complement to their businesses. The telegraph’s development was accelerated with favorable public policies, supplemented by free rights of way for wires along canals and roads, and partnerships with the railroads, allowing them to communicate train schedules, freight logistics, and other relevant information. Since communication improvements induced better trafficking, railroads were tempted to save money by laying only one set of tracks over long distances. Telecommunications revolutionized the world, and governmental supervision became crucial for sectors such as gas, telephone, electricity, and urban transit, which marked the second industrial wave.

The Politics Behind Communication Technologies

When the telephone was first introduced in the US in 1876, it had to compete against the well-established telegraph. In Europe, telephone service grew slowly due to unfavorable private financing and the telegraph monopoly run by postal authorities. France discouraged private investment but also reserved the right to rescind phone concessions if the service succeeded. The introduction of other communication systems created different technologies, but Alexander Graham Bell refused to allow other systems to connect to his network, just as Marconi refused with his wireless telegraphy. However, as Marconi’s service impacted ship safety, international concerns arose about excluding competing systems. Meanwhile, in Britain, public complaints about high rates led to the nationalization of the telegraph industry by 1870. These examples show how political choices have played a significant role in determining the growth and development of communication technologies.

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