Although Starr doesn’t put it quite this way, the heart of his argument is that Americans fundamentally misunderstand what is unusual about their communications media, and why. ”The media,” for Starr’s purposes, include not just the print press but also books, broadcasts (radio and television), the movies and other innovations, notably including telephones, that allow people to share information. Conventionally, Americans think that the most important fact about their news media is that, thanks to the First Amendment, they are ”free.” The absence of governmental controls over parts of the media — though not all, as witness broadcasters’ wrangles with the Federal Communications Commission — has indeed made America’s communications system distinctive. But the emphasis on the First Amendment implies that the media’s evolution has been automatic and unplanned.
What Starr argues — and, in my view, powerfully demonstrates — is that every branch of the communications system reflects deliberate political choices made under particular historic circumstances. To give one example, out of scores in the book: through the 1700’s the British government feared that newspapers would fan political opposition and so restricted their growth, not directly but through onerous taxes. When, for budgetary reasons, it tried to apply these taxes to the American colonies, through the Stamp Act of 1765, it met outraged resistance. ”The colonists famously opposed the measure on the grounds that it was taxation without representation, but the specific nature of the tax also mattered,” Starr says. The Stamp Act’s burden would fall on the newspapers and pamphlets that had been so important in developing a revolutionary sensibility. As the new American republic took form, it devised a sweeping range of measures designed to foster the growth and circulation of newspapers, including as many local ones as possible.
Starr describes this process as a ”constitutive choice,” one that sets the conditions for future development of an institution. (This leaden term brings up my only real complaint: the writing here is denser and less inviting than in Starr’s previous big book, presenting the risk that ”The Creation of the Media” will be more influential than avidly read.) ”It is a particular argument of this book that the United States has followed a distinctive developmental path in communications ever since the American Revolution,” he writes. This path has led to American media more technically advanced, in some ways more varied and with a wider audience than those in many other Western countries, but also with distinctive blind spots and excesses. Most of Starr’s book examines three long and overlapping ”constitutive moments” when political choices and technological developments shaped the media’s growth.