The Creation of the Media: The Political Origins of Modern Communications By Paul Starr (Basic Books, 484 pp., $27.50)
For centuries, Americans have been telling themselves that their nation is not like any other. The most influential version of this notion, stretching back to Puritan times, asserts that the United States has a divinely scripted role to play in the sacred drama of world history. This providentialist fantasy has done no end of mischief: serving as a religious sanction for raw power, justifying the export of American ways--by force if necessary--to a recalcitrant world. The current misadventure in Iraq is a recent example. Presenting the United States as God's missionary of freedom, the Bush administration has revived American exceptionalism in a particularly xenophobic and sanctimonious form.
Is the notion of American uniqueness anything more than a delusion of virtuous omnipotence? Does it have a basis in reality? The matter demands a detour into recent intellectual history. There was a time, during the quarter-century after World War II, when the exceptionalist idea had academic legitimacy. The United States was on top of the world in every sense: a prosperous and powerful mega-state that had somehow escaped the worst ravages of war and oppressive state rule, preserving a government that was (for all its faults) a fair facsimile of liberal democracy. Historians and social scientists (some of them migrs from totalitarian regimes) posed the exceptionalist question in various forms. The triumphant centrist version was: how had America resisted the temptation of totalitarian ideologies? The disappointed leftist version was: why had an advanced capitalist society not produced a flourishing socialist movement? Whether they deplored the absence of genuine economic debate or celebrated the "pragmatic" avoidance of it, whether they deployed the narratives of Marx or of modernization, exceptionalist interpretations described a common set of American conditions--ethnic diversity, abundant opportunity, widespread prosperity, the lack (or the concealment) of class- consciousness, the promises (or the seductions) of advertising, the absence of a feudal tradition, the deep strains of individualism and pragmatism. Taken together, they were supposed to provide an answer to the recurring question: why is America so ... different?
But by the 1970s, the question had come to seem stale and formulaic. The uniqueness of American prosperity, power, and pragmatism; the vigor of its capitalist consensus: such supposedly long-standing conditions looked more and more like the products of a particular postwar moment. Historians began to think that the exceptionalist argument was misconceived: the political landscape had never been as monochromatically classless as it had seemed to centrist intellectuals at mid-century; and America had in fact produced a popular socialist movement (though its leaders were more likely to use the idioms of Social Gospel Christianity than the slogans of socialist revolution); and subsequent Progressive attempts to tame laissez-faire capitalism had indeed required the import of European ideas. In short, the United States was hardly as exceptional as its nationalist devotees (and its socialist critics) claimed.
If there was anything peculiarly American about American political culture, it was not laissez-faire individualism, but the effort to combine economic freedom for the individual with a larger commitment to the commonweal--or what the republican tradition, dating back to the Revolutionary era, called the public good. The American political economy, and still less American political culture, was never as thoroughly privatized as ideologues of entrepreneurship insisted, and the American marriage of public and private owed much to the country's customs and conditions. This modified exceptionalist argument preserved some real possibilities. Without descending into the miasma of mystical nationalism, one might still claim that there could be something exceptional--even something uniquely admirable--about American institutions.
In recent years, though, scholars have retreated even further from considering the national origins of institutions and traditions. The winds of globalization have swept through conferences and classrooms, swinging wide the doors of scholarly perception, unveiling the fluidity, the malleability, and the portability of national identities. Words such as "diaspora" and "borderlands" have become coin of the professional realm, signifying how difficult it is now--and always has been--to maintain fixed ethnic, cultural, or political boundaries in a world of displaced persons, restless immigrants, and forced or chosen mass migrations. This ferment has enriched historical thought and taken us far beyond glib assertions about national character, with respect to the United States or any other country. Unlike politicians, historians and social scientists have largely discarded the old exceptionalist framework, and often with good reason.
But this cannot be the whole story. There is that sensible rule about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The career of exceptionalism is not over, nor should it be. The inattention to national boundaries has unfortunately reinforced a tendency to neglect political history, one area where a comparative perspective might reveal a characteristically (if not uniquely) American blend of public and private concerns. That is one reason Paul Starr's book is so welcome. The Creation of the Media is a remarkable achievement--a comprehensive trans-Atlantic account of the rise of mass communications: postal services, newspapers, the telegraph, the telephone, film, and radio. It is also an exceptionalist account, which shows in convincing detail how the decentralized American mix of public and private differed from the statist approaches of Great Britain, France, and Germany--and how that difference underwrote the leadership of the United States in the spread of mass media. But unlike other exceptionalist narratives, Starr's book is not a simple tale of triumph. His argument is subtle and qualified, and shrewdly ambivalent in its dnouement.
Most popular accounts of the rise of mass media are a bland mishmash of technological determinism and free-market fundamentalism. If policymakers appear on the scene, they are pawns in the grip of abstract "forces" or bureaucrats distracting inventors from their visionary work. Starr rescues these important historical actors from those demeaning and inaccurate roles by emphasizing "the political origins of modern communications." As this subtitle indicates, his book plays multiple variations on a single theme: the primacy of public policy. This is not a fashionable argument in these privatized times, but it is a forceful one; and in deploying it, Starr demonstrates that there was nothing inevitable about the development of the media, in the United States or elsewhere. The structure of modern mass communications reflected policy decisions that could (and can) be reversed or redirected.
Starr's emphasis on public choice is evident from the outset, when he asserts that "the United States has followed a distinctive path in communications ever since the American Revolution," naming a political event as the origin of American distinction. To be sure, a part of America's peculiarity was owed to circumstances beyond its leaders' control--the absence of guilds and other feudal restraints on commerce; geopolitical isolation from European squabbles; a continental orientation that encouraged the creation of nationwide networks. But the American path also stemmed from political choices that reflected the founding generations' republican commitments--not simply to a decentralized free press, but also to a strong public sphere populated by an informed citizenry. This positive conception of liberty encouraged the (limited) use of state power to promote communications: cheap postal rates, postal privacy, public education, and widespread literacy, as well as widely published constitutions and minutes of legislative meetings. It took more than a "marketplace of ideas" to make a democratic public sphere, which is what nineteenth-century Americans could fairly claim to inhabit, at least if they were white males. Despite its obvious limitations, this was truly an exceptional American achievement.
Yet even apart from its systematic exclusions and its failure to resolve the disagreements that led to civil war, the nineteenth-century public sphere harbored subtler difficulties that could undermine its vigor over time, as Starr makes clear. Market pressures encouraged publishers to push the boundaries of respectability by courting a mass audience with cheap thrills and sotto voce advice on birth control and abortion. This provoked a phobic reaction among moral reformers, who set about protecting ordinary people from their baser selves by restricting popular access to printed matter--a characteristically American threat to press freedom. More diffuse but equally significant was the limitation posed by the preference of American readers for action over understanding, information over knowledge. This, Starr suggests, led to a fragmented political culture, dominated by disconnected facts rather than coherent interpretations.
But perhaps the most serious threat to a democratic public sphere was the rise of monopoly media power. The problem of monopoly first became apparent in the 1880s, when Western Union gained control over the telegraph industry and the Associated Press took over the wire-service transmission of news. The threat of systematically standardized opinion began to trouble defenders of public debate. In subsequent decades, this danger has been only fitfully addressed. To be sure, unprecedented concentrations of media power provoked new strategies to protect the commonweal: antitrust laws, government regulations. But the specter of monopoly would not depart so easily, despite decades of litigation and gestures toward exorcism such as the Fairness Doctrine (1949- 1987) or the prohibition on "legacy" monopolies. (Unlike European firms, American corporations, no matter how great their monopoly power in the current generation of technology, were denied it in the next: Western Union did not acquire control of the telephone business, nor did Bell Telephone control the radio business, and so on.)
Starr ends this volume in 1941, on the cusp of the rise of television and the creation of the most powerful corporate combinations in media history. But even at that early date, he sees cause for concern: "The continuing transformation of communication has created new hierarchies of private power and put at risk some of the political aspirations that originally helped to set the process in motion." Or, as Emerson once remarked, every spirit builds its own house, but afterward the house confines the spirit. The rise of media monopolies endangered the democracy that had encouraged them to develop.
By the 1930s, Starr argues, the shift from press to media had already begun to imperil the Founders' republican rationale for a free press--the need for open debate among an informed citizenry. The ascendance of film and broadcast journalism over print raised entry-level costs for entrepreneurs. This created opportunities for large corporations to squeeze small operators, grasp the ring of monopoly power, and sustain profits by selling air time to advertising agencies--who standardized the entertainment and "news" to provide the most effective vehicle for whatever product they were selling. Even before the rise of television, mass media had become primarily instruments of marketing.
Starr knows that it is hardly "nostalgia" to point out that this is not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. To be sure, the mix of public and private had always allowed the possibility of corruption. When competitive advantage was politically based, cronyism could flourish and wealth could accumulate in the hands of a few. But the modern corporation raised this hierarchical tendency to heights undreamt of by the founders of the republic. It is delusional to pretend that the lumbering behemoths of the contemporary media industry have preserved any of the old republican concern for an educated citizenry. As Starr writes, "History is no place for a complacent triumphalism about American technology and interests, especially if the original grounds of policy are forgotten." His great accomplishment is to recover those grounds and to remind us that their disappearance is by no means inevitable. A democratic public sphere was created by political choices and it can be re-made by them-- if enough of us can remember what was genuinely exceptional about America in the first place.
Starr's account begins in seventeenth-century London and Paris, with the rise of the postal service as a part of the public sphere, the proliferation of print, and the emergence of publishing as an arm of the state. Early newspapers were mostly licensed court gazettes, faithfully serving the government in power by offering foreign news, but restricting coverage of local events to "the lurid, strange, or miraculous." Yet as English parliamentary politics became more competitive in the later 1600s, opposition newspapers asserted themselves, providing employment for the pens of Defoe and Swift, provoking government Stamp Acts that were meant to make distribution prohibitively expensive. With respect to press freedom, parliamentary Great Britain was ahead of aristocratic France, but both countries were adopting the apparatus of the modern state, seeking to make their populations more "legible" by requiring the use of surnames and compiling census lists for taxation and conscription. The rise of independent journalism played counterpoint to these statist tendencies by promoting a genuine public sphere--an arena for free debate, where government intrusions could be kept at bay.
During the eighteenth century, public spheres emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, including the European continent. (In 1750, the best newspaper in Europe was published in the Netherlands.) "Fragmentation among political elites and competition in the market," Starr observes, "together contributed to breaking up the monopoly of court gazettes and opening up public political debate." Hierarchical rationales for restricting the diffusion of knowledge persisted, and were summarized succinctly by Mandeville: "Should a Horse know as much as a Man, I should not want to be his Rider." Yet British oppositional politics was encouraging a different view: a distrust of social hierarchies and concentrated power, a belief that a free press was a "bulwark of liberty," as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon announced in Cato's Letters in the 1720s.
The American colonies proved a fertile breeding ground for this sentiment. The reasons were partly structural. Colonial newspapers were typically owned by independent printers, Starr writes, "who were not subordinate, as their counterparts were in Britain, to a powerful class of booksellers." In 1690, the Boston printer and coffeehouse proprietor Benjamin Harris began publishing Publick Occurrences, both Foreign and Domestic, which promised to appear monthly and "if any glut of occurrences happen, oftener." Within a few decades there were dozens of competitors. Colonial newspapers often promoted deference to British hierarchy and habits of mind, but even early on there were significant departures. By 1730, colonial governments no longer had even nominal authority to license the newspapers, as the British government did. A few years later, when a newspaperman named John Peter Zenger charged the royal governor of New York with corruption, the jury acquitted him of libel because they were persuaded that Zenger's charges were true. The Zenger verdict departed from English libel law, but its significance was more political than legal. As Starr points out, it "vindicated the idea that the press could serve as a guardian of popular liberty by scrutinizing government."
That idea acquired even greater potency with the coming of the American Revolution. Newspapers led the charge against British imperial policies. Even while the press Anglicized the colonies by celebrating British taste, it also Americanized them by creating a sense of common grievance. The Revolution and its aftermath, in Starr's telling, are the brilliant dawn of a democratic public sphere, with a free press at its center. Indeed, the Revolution established two-way traffic between press and people, making the newspapers a key public venue of discussion during the war and the debate over the Constitution.
According to Starr, the victory of the pro-Constitution Federalists over their anti-Federalist critics released an inexorable tide of democracy. This Whiggish view may come as a surprise to anyone who still thinks the Constitution was aimed at least in part at containing the democratic energies unleashed by the revolution. Starr takes the notion of "popular sovereignty" in The Federalist Papers a little too literally; he doesn't catch its rhetorical use as a sleight of hand for dissolving anti-Federalist anxieties about centralized power. (In effect: "Why should the people be worried about the government? The people are the government!") Still, he accurately characterizes the Bill of Rights as the outgrowth of popular debate and discussion--of a young and vigorous public sphere.
Most importantly, Starr recognizes that all the early state constitutions-- along with the federal one--saw a free press as a positive promoter of the public good, not merely a neutral marketplace of ideas. This was eighteenth-century republicanism, not nineteenth-century liberalism. And even if popular sovereignty was mostly a rhetorical fiction, it was a useful fiction in certain ways. If the people were to rule, they would need to be informed. This end demanded many means: not only a free press (with cosmopolitan coverage), but also an effective postal service with lots of post offices and post roads, not to mention open sessions of Congress and widely published constitutions. And the people also required literacy, a need met by literate mothers instructing their children and later by public schools. In sum, they needed the whole panoply of services supporting a democratic public sphere. And many of them got what they needed. In the 1790s, even remote country folk in New England villages "read the news" and engaged with national political controversy.
A distinctively American feature of this landscape was a certain measure of privacy. Surveillance of letters was routine in Europe and the American colonies, but not in the new republic. The post office in the United States was not a system to extend state power. Nor was the census. In America, the census was an instrument of public knowledge, not an instrument of government control. (One of its traditional functions in early modern Europe was "to expel all drones out of a commonweale," according to Jean Bodin.) The American census assumed a co-operative rather than a coercive relationship between citizens and the state. The rhetoric of popular sovereignty dissolved any potential conflicts or inequalities of power. This was not mere deception or wordplay; citizens felt involved enough in public decisions that the idea of their own sovereignty did not seem merely a cruel joke. Belief in the political reality of popular sovereignty was crucial to the vitality of the public sphere.
Free speech was also the beneficiary of precedents set in the early republic--not legal precedents (the courts had little to say on the subject) but political precedents. John Adams and his Federalist Party tried to silence dissent in the 1790s by arresting uncooperative editors (notably Benjamin Franklin Bache of the Philadelphia Aurora) and legislating conformity in the Alien and Sedition Acts. But these moves backfired politically, as imprisoned dissidents became popular heroes; and for the next several decades the federal government tended to leave dissenters alone, with the significant exception of slaves or abolitionists. James Madison made no attempt to silence the vociferous Federalist critics of the War of 1812, a policy that survived through the Mexican War in the 1840s. In a rapidly expanding country with a scattered population and undeveloped technologies of communication, the federal government may have been simply making a virtue of necessity. In any case, it would not be too long before free speech would need more protection than mere customary tolerance.
For a while, though, the public sphere benefited from the convergence of popular republican political culture and the spreading desire to make money in the literary marketplace. As Starr notes, the Copyright Act of 1790 and the subsequent judicial interpretations of it "took a restrictive view of intellectual property rights and gave priority to free expression, competition, and the public domain." This was an expression not only of individualism, but also of a desire to promote public knowledge for the commonweal. The anti-monopoly strain in antebellum politics encouraged a restricted view of copyright, while faith in price competition favored cheap print and mass marketing.
Like the copyright laws, the rise of the penny press in the 1830s showed how cultural products were shaped by the effort to reach a commercial audience. The penny press subordinated facts to titillation, seeking profits through circulation and advertising. It epitomized the structure of the modern media, and anticipated some of the contradictions of modern mass culture: the coupling of sentiment and sensation, of family entertainment and the fascination with "the morbid, the criminal, and the erotic." Still, despite the new interest in mass marketing, the public sphere in antebellum America remained loosely organized by comparison to European patterns. There was no government-subsidized newspaper in Washington (as there was in Paris), and the number of local newspapers sustained the model of a village enlightenment rather than a metropolitan monopoly. In Starr's view, decentralization was the key to a democratic public sphere.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, centralizing changes were afoot. One involved the rise of the telegraph. Here, as elsewhere, the political organization of the technology was the key to its impact (rather than some inherent tendency in the technology itself). Samuel F.B. Morse tried hard to get Congress to back his invention. He even offered a piece of the patent rights to the chairman of the House Commerce Committee. Bribery and cajoling eventually paid off: the federal government financed and owned the first telegraph line in the United States, between Baltimore and Washington, in 1844.
But the 1840s were a bad time for public investment in internal improvements. The economy was stagnating, and many canal projects financed with public money failed to produce a return. So instead of directly backing development, the federal government encouraged private capital by creating a permissive legal environment. Entrepreneurs swarmed about the new technology, backed by newspaper and railroad owners, who stood to benefit from it directly. The most successful entrepreneur was Hiram Sibley, who owned a printing and telegraphy company in Rochester that he renamed Western Union in 1854. Sibley adopted what Starr calls a "strategy of absolute conquest" over his rivals, acquiring them or driving them out of business. By 1866, Western Union controlled the national market.
The telegraph monopoly paved the way for a complementary combination in the press. During the 1850s, the largest New York newspapers formed what rivals called the "Associated Press" to provide news by telegraph wire to major daily newspapers throughout the United States. After Western Union established its monopoly, Starr writes, "there developed the first bilateral monopoly" in the United States--a monopoly telegraph in close partnership with a monopoly news service.
Telegraphy on the American plan promoted centralization of power and standardization of ideas; it weakened the democratic foundations of the public sphere. Telegraphy took a different path--and for the first time in Starr's narrative, a more democratic path--on the other side of the Atlantic. While the American government allowed telegraphy to become a privately owned monopoly that primarily served businesses and the wealthy, the British government made telegraphy a publicly owned subsidiary of the postal service, providing (in effect) retail service to the general population. Telegrams became a popular form of communication for ordinary folk, and the telegraph a force for democracy. The British government's postal telegraph wire service, by offering the same rates to all subscribers, equalized the relationship between provincial and metropolitan papers. Western Union, in contrast, strengthened the already powerful papers by giving preferential rates to the Associated Press cartel and refusing to carry any rival wire service.
If the British telegraph underwrote social democracy, its American counterpart sanctioned social darwinism. These outcomes were not determined by "technology" or other abstract forces; nor were they the result of equally abstract traits of national character (English communalism, American individualism, and so on). They were the product of particular policy decisions made by particular people operating within a particular framework of legal and political institutions. And in this case, the exceptionally American approach proved the less democratic one.
Yet Starr tells a different story about the telephone. Western Union's focus on an elite clientele left the mass market open to telephones, which became far more widely dispersed among Americans than among Europeans. Through the 1880s and 1890s, the halting rise of Bell to industry dominance led eventually to the creation of one big system. The Bell System becomes the most stable and benign communications monopoly in Starr's book, a case study for illustrating the fruitful interplay of private and public power under the new managerial conditions of the early twentieth century.
The balancing act surfaced in 1913, in the antitrust settlement between Bell and the federal government. The decision made it more difficult for Bell telephone to make money by acquiring smaller companies but encouraged a new path to profitability by defining research as a deductible business expense. Meanwhile, regulated rates ensured steady, predictable profits. For the next few decades, Bell Laboratories became a fruitful source of technological innovation. Private capital was harnessed to the public good, without sacrificing its own. It was apparently still possible to merge liberal and republican principles.
The logic of centralization was clearer in the corporate economy than in the metropolitan media culture, which was moving toward unprecedented diversity. Between the Civil War and World War I, cities swarmed with strange new immigrants, who babbled in foreign tongues, disported themselves in disreputable amusements, and devoured a bewildering variety of newspapers--from foreign-language weeklies to metropolitan tabloids. And so WASP reformers, led by the Congregational minister Anthony Comstock, aimed to restore moral uniformity by enlisting the post office in a campaign of censorship. Federal power had expanded during the Civil War, including the power to censor the mail (and by implication the press, which depended on the mail for distribution). In 1873, Comstock persuaded Congress to legislate this intrusiveness by passing "An Act for the Suppression of Trade in and Circulation of obscene Literature and Articles of immoral Use." The Comstock Law, like Comstock himself, stayed on the scene for decades, leaving obscenity elastic, undefined, and available as an excuse to curtail press freedom. Apart from a few cranks, no one was willing to challenge the federal government's power to invade privacy in the name of morality, particularly in an era when elites increasingly equated national power with national purity.
Still, as Starr observes, the American public sphere remained extraordinarily vital during the decades before World War I. Though he overlooks the standardizing impact of magazines' growing dependence on national advertising, he makes a convincing case for the persistence of a vibrant democracy. Daily metropolitan newspapers, celebrating diversity with sentimental snapshots of mischievous immigrant children, helped to ease newcomers' transition to literacy and citizenship. Socialist and anarchist publications abounded in small Midwestern towns as well as coastal cities. Many--such as the Appeal to Reason of Girard, Kansas--had large national circulations dependent on cheap postal rates and free rural delivery (which began in 1896). Public debate was vigorous. The forces making for diversity were stronger than those creating conformity.
All that changed when the United States entered World War I. Pro-war Progressives saw the war as an opportunity to create the kind of civic culture they had admired in Europe. But chauvinism engulfed civility. Congress led the way: the Espionage Act of 1917 made criticism of the war an act of treason; the Sedition Act of 1918 expanded that definition to include chance remarks. In cosmopolitan cities as well as provincial towns, in universities as well as factories, self-appointed super-patriots bullied socialists and pacifists into silence. The armistice brought no relief from hysterical counter-subversion, as Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer deported thousands of suspected communists without even the pretense of due process. By 1920, the American public sphere was in a shambles.
"If the war didn't kill you," Orwell wrote, "it was bound to start you thinking." Troubled by wartime hysteria, American intellectuals started thinking about free speech--even Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who had never particularly liked the idea. The 1920s marked the birth of modern First Amendment law, beginning with Holmes's opinions in the Schenk and Abrams cases of 1919. Gently prodded by civil libertarians, Holmes developed the idea that the government had the power to limit free speech only when it constituted a "clear and present danger" to the polity. "Even though Holmes's opinion [in Abrams] did not speak for the court," Starr writes, "it marks a break in constitutional interpretation that would transform the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment from what had been, at least to judges, an almost inert text into what Holmes now called a 'sweeping command.'" From then on, protection of free speech would be judicial rather than political.
Holmes's shift was part of a larger one. Stung by the war and its aftermath, American Progressives (notably at this magazine in its early years) took to calling themselves liberals. They developed greater suspicion of "European" statism and greater sensitivity to individual liberty in cultural as well as political matters. The spectacle of whole populations whipped into nationalist frenzy revealed a new threat to the public sphere: propaganda, whether state- sponsored or contracted out (as in Great Britain and the United States) to the advertising industry. Though Starr pays insufficient attention to the role of advertising in fostering fears of conformity, he accurately captures the growing solicitude for self-expression among Walter Lippmann and his contemporaries at The New Republic. Moral policing of print matter became increasingly unfashionable, especially in cities. Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York, announcing that "no woman was ever ruined by a book," helped to defeat the Clean Books Bill in the New York state legislature in 1923. By 1930, literary censorship was more an irritant than a major threat to book publishing.
Yet censorship was alive and well in the movie business--mostly, as Starr explains, because its domination by Jews provoked Christian suspicion. Of course Gentiles, among them Thomas Edison, were involved in the development of the medium. In the early years, the Edison trust aimed to exercise de facto censorship through monopoly, but it was successfully challenged by such Jewish independents as Adolph Zukor. "What they were making belonged entirely to technicians," Zukor said. "What I was talking about was show business." Zukor and other self-made immigrants brought variety and vitality to the new medium, which enjoyed extraordinary latitude in the early going. Before World War I, many films openly addressed class conflict and other controversial issues, contributing to the general vigor of the public sphere in that era.
But the defenders of moral order were poised and ready. In 1915, in the Mutual Film case, the Supreme Court declared that the movies were not only "a business pure and simple" and thus unworthy of constitutional protections afforded the press, but were also "capable of evil" through the spread of moral corruption and thus subject to the government's police power. By the 1920s, the growing notoriety of Hollywood had surrounded the movie business with an atmosphere of decadence; and the Jewishness of industry moguls added anti- Semitism to the mix of moral suspicions. When the New York legislature passed a movie censorship law in 1921, industry leaders knew they needed to censor themselves or face state control. They formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and appointed Will Hays, a Presbyterian Republican, to head it.
During the 1920s, industry selfcensorship worked just fine, at least for the industry. Producers voluntarily submitted project synopses to the Hays Office. Between 1924 and 1930, the censors killed 125 of them (out of how many, Starr does not say). Political controversy vanished from the screen and prurience was yoked to bourgeois morality. Profits soared, and a handful of major studios grasped oligopolistic power through vertical integration and block booking (which required local theaters to book all of a studio's output, even the flops). By the end of the decade, though, Catholics and Protestants alike were grumbling about the need for more censorship. The Catholics came up with a Motion Picture Production Code, based on a notion of morally correct entertainment that emphasized sharp, conventional distinctions between right and wrong and respect for law, "natural or human." Hays welcomed the new Code. "The Presbyterian elder became the Catholics' chief ally in reining in the Jewish filmmakers," Starr remarks. But Hays was fitful in his enforcement at first, which is why the movies made between 1930 and 1933 are called "pre-code. " Mae West captured the moment perfectly: "I like restraint, if it doesn't go too far." But in 1933 Bishop John Cantwell of Los Angeles sent the banker A.H. Giannini to hint darkly to the filmmakers that they had better shape up or face a mass outbreak of anti-Semitism. The absence of First Amendment protection left film susceptible to censorship in a way that literature was not.
Starr provides no comparative dimension for American film history, but one suspects there is something characteristically American about this blend of moralism and self-regulation. In Starr's account of radio, by contrast, the comparative pattern is explicit and familiar: government-sponsored edification in Great Britain (or outright government control on the Continent) as opposed to corporatesponsored entertainment in the United States. If the BBC aimed at uplift, NBC and CBS went downmarket in search of a wider audience. (ABC was not created until 1943.) The story of these networks' rise to dominance reflects the characteristic dependence of media development on public policy. Radio came of age in the 1920s, when government was likely to do business's bidding. Federal policy decisions reinforced the domination of the medium by a few large corporations. The Federal Radio Commission (FRC) favored licensing commercial rather than non-profit stations, and government regulations generally promoted the interests of big, powerful "clear channel" stations--the better to reach remote rural listeners and serve a national audience. Regulators used the rhetoric of consumer access in the service of "natural" monopolies.
There was of course nothing "natural" or "inevitable" about monopolies in broadcast journalism, though government policies had made it seem so. In 1941, though, the Federal Communications Commission (successor to the FRC) had begun to turn antitrust arguments against network radio, declaring it against the public interest for any one network to own more than one station in any one area. Yet despite this attempt to create rivals for NBC and CBS, at this point the tendency toward concentrated power in broadcast media could only be restrained. It was already too late to reverse it.
By the time Starr ends his story, a momentous transformation is under way: from press to media, from print to broadcast journalism. The consequences of this change are huge and difficult to sort through. Starr rightly poses the key political question: "Could the mass media do the job that democracy classically assigned to the press--or did the commercially driven media and new techniques of mass persuasion so distort public knowledge and degrade public discussion as to make popular self-government impossible?"
The jury is still out, but the signs are not good. Research yields ambiguous results, but one conclusion is clear: corporate mass media are better at re- affirming existing power relations than at challenging them. As early as the 1940s, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld was announcing with great fanfare that radio listeners were not brainwashed by media messages, but merely confirmed in their existing prejudices. This was reassuring news to those who fretted about Americans falling prey to totalitarian temptations; but it was equally reassuring to those who were in power and wanted to hold on to it. And as Starr points out, neither Lazarsfeld nor other media researchers take into account the agenda-setting power of media, their capacity to maintain the boundaries of permissible dissent by simply never giving voice or visibility to certain points of view.
Since the 1920s, with the rise of corporate media supported by national advertising, we have seen a steady narrowing of ideological diversity in the public sphere. The multiple voices of the pre- World War I era have become fewer and fewer; the exceptionally democratic American public sphere has become less exceptional and less democratic. The change is not due to "technology," Starr quite properly insists, but to the consolidation of corporate power over media, and the tightening of the borders of "responsible opinion."
Starr's critique, remember, is based on events before 1941. In the decades since then, centralizing tendencies have accelerated, leaving a handful of multinational corporations more or less in charge of American mass media--and hence of our public sphere as well. In itself, the structural trend toward monopoly ownership promotes no ideology beyond marketresearch majoritarianism, no politics beyond a fondness for maintaining status quo power relations, no economics beyond a desire to satisfy stockholders. The banality and the complacency of this worldview have permeated our public sphere, sanctioning trivialization, transforming political language into soundbites, slogans, and psychobabble. Inarticulacy has become a political asset, as our president demonstrates daily. The mush served up by the mainstream press--the blend of local expertise and Beltway sentimentality and conventional wisdom epitomized, say, by a David Broder column--creates a world where "partisanship" and "negative campaigning" are considered bad form.
But blandness is not the only diversion available. Tabloid media offer other alternatives to the gray world of policy debate. They provide relief from boredom for people who want to scream or be screamed at, but their impact on the public sphere is anything but benign, and it is not simply a matter of confusing rhetoric with rant. Tabloids promote a right-wing populism (or pseudopopulism) that redefines class in cultural terms, redirecting populist resentment from rich Republicans with rifles to "latte-sipping liberals." While it is perfectly congenial with the interests of multinational media monopolies, this ideology has a larger significance: it has pushed the fulcrum of public debate sharply to the right during the last twenty-five years--ever since the ascension of the now-sainted Ronald Reagan, the pioneer pseudopopulist whose mastery of the mass media continues from the grave. The spread of this faux populism helps to explain how working-class voters might be persuaded to vote for Republican policies that threaten their own economic interest and sometimes their economic survival.
The public sphere, in short, is in a mess, and the situation has only worsened since September 11. The Bush administration's revival of providentialist cant, the supine posture of the media, the indifference of the American population to widely publicized factual evidence (60 percent of Americans still believe there was a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda): none of these developments inspires confidence in the vigor of our "national conversation." Nor does the awful reign of the current FCC chairman, Michael Powell, who seems equally devoted to monopoly and Comstockery. What does inspire hope is the recent appearance of an opposition, and not merely in the Democratic Party.
The Bush administration, in its clumsy attempt to bully Americans into line, has inflamed popular outrage that is expressing itself in various ways: the widespread protest against Powell's policies, a protest that cuts across party lines and has even stirred the somnolent Congress; the unexpected flood of contributions to the Kerry campaign; the crowds at Fahrenheit 9/11 and the controversy it has provoked (however one evaluates the film itself); the expanding influence of MoveOn.org and similar anti-Bush organizations on the Internet (itself a new technology with untested and easily exaggerated but still genuine democratic promise). Of course there are problems as well as possibilities in this new ferment. Seeking alternatives to centrist techno- speak, some opposition ideologues may end up mirroring the demagoguery of the party that they reject. The specters of paranoia and self-righteousness haunt the left as well as the right.
Still, the grounds for hope are real. The emergence of rancorous debate over the Iraq war and other key questions is not a lapse from "bipartisanship," it is an encouraging sign of life in what had been a moribund marketplace of opinions. Americans have once again recognized that silence is not a form of civic virtue, and that acquiescence in official mendacity is a betrayal of patriotism. So it may be that our citizenry will somehow be provoked into reviving America's most exceptional political accomplishment, a democratic public sphere. But the odds are long: that accomplishment has been as elusive as it is exceptional.
This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.