BROOKE GLADSTONE: That press freedom is a fundamental principle of American democracy is practically a cliché. But we see the truth of it in Paul Starr's masterful history, The Creation of the Media. It begins when America is merely a series of colonies along the Eastern seaboard, and ends with the nation's entry into World War II in December of 1941. Much has changed since 1941 that this book does not directly address. And yet, it has managed to overturn, or at least modify, every assumption I've made over the years about how the American media arrived in this form at this point in history. When we spoke to Starr last spring, he explained how the American Revolution united the patriots and the printers in a way that elevated the importance of freedom of the press.
PAUL STARR: We were the first country in the world to embody the principle of freedom of the press in our organic law, in our Constitution. It wasn't just that we guaranteed the press the freedom from government intervention; the government actually took positive steps to promote a free press, by subsidizing newspapers, by creating a system of free exchange among newspapers. And you have to see this in contrast to what existed in Europe at the time, where in Britain and France and other countries there wasn't only censorship, there were very heavy taxes levied upon the press. And so, instead of taxing the press, we subsidized the press. We had more newspapers. By the time Alexis De Tocqueville came to America he said, "Americans go into the wilderness with their axes, their bibles and their newspapers."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And your book's underlying message is that it was never mainly about the technology, and it wasn't even mainly about the marketplace, although they both played huge roles. It was mainly about politics.
PAUL STARR: Yes. I think the early considerations that dominated policy were, first of all, the fear of the disintegration of the Republic. How could we hold this country together? And so there were what you might call today nation-building purposes. But it wasn't just any kind of nation that the founders were concerned to build. They were concerned to build a republic because this was a system that subsidized the distribution of political news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it's very interesting because, as you say, it was a fragile nation, one spread out over a vast territory, and yet the politicians were willing to put up with a great deal more rancor and vilification in the newspapers they essentially subsidized than is acceptable today.
PAUL STARR: Well, they weren't entirely happy about this. Washington was attacked, John Adams. And, of course, in the late 1790's, under President Adams, Congress passed a measure to try to control criticism, the Sedition Act. But the failure of the Sedition Act really set a very important precedent that in practice American politics wasn't going to accept that kind of control.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you figure out that the interview was invented by American journalists in 1860?
PAUL STARR: Oh, well when important people wanted to have their words in the press, before the 1860's, those words appeared in the form of a speech or in the form of an essay. They didn't allow themselves to be put on the spot, asked questions that were oh, perhaps going to make them blurt out something they didn't want to say. And this was not done in European newspapers. So it was only in the mid-1800's that this practice began in America, and it has a certain egalitarian aspect to it. It puts the reporter more on the level of the person that's being interviewed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in your book, over and over again you demonstrate that, contrary to what I think is the popular opinion today, it wasn't the technology that pushed forward how we have our national conversation, that the ground was already tilled for that kind of communication before the technology came along.
PAUL STARR: Well, what I suggest in this book is that when new technologies come along, they provoke a political question: how is this new medium going to be handled, is it going to be private, is it going to be public? Is it going to be a military technology? What will be the basic purposes that it serves? And so, Europe and America often dealt with the same technology in very different ways. When the electric telegraph first appeared, the Europeans treated it as a military technology; we treated it as a commercial technology. The telephone, same thing. There was a period in the 1890's, early 1900's when there were hundreds of little mutual telephone companies, independent telephone cooperatives that were established. And telephones spread much more widely, much faster in America than elsewhere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why don't you give the example of how the telephone developed here, as opposed to the Soviet Union.
PAUL STARR: After the Soviet Revolution, there was a choice about what kind of investment to make in communications technology. And the Soviets could have invested more in telephones. They didn't. They chose another new technology, the loudspeaker.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So everybody knew what everyone was saying, and everyone heard the same thing.
PAUL STARR: Well yes, it's a means of projecting the authority of the state.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about distinguishing between the development of say the telephone and the telegraph on our shores?
PAUL STARR: The telegraph actually illustrates the American dilemma, the problems that we've run into through our history in communications because initially we had a highly competitive telegraph industry with dozens of different firms. But it took only about 20 years for the industry to fall under the control of the Western Union Company, which was actually the first national monopoly of any kind in the United States. And we were totally unprepared for it. We had no anti-trust law. We had no principle to deal with this new phenomenon of concentrated private power. And the monopoly of Western Union was especially dangerous because Western Union had a partnership with the Associated Press, which was controlled by a small number of newspapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And was America's first monopoly news service.
PAUL STARR: Right. And so, together they monopolized the distribution of national news. And they were in a position, really, to alter the understanding that Americans had of what was happening politically. And I think in the case of the 1876 election, I try to show that that monopoly helped throw the election in one direction rather than another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the development of the telegraph could be seen as an early object lesson in the perils of media consolidation.
PAUL STARR: Absolutely. In the late nineteenth, early twentieth century we saw the emergence of antitrust law. And that did help to limit the amount of concentrated control. And then when radio developed, at first there was a great profusion of different radio stations around the country, but relatively quickly again, by the late 1920's NBC and CBS had come to dominate radio. And then during the late 1930's the New Deal began to question whether this concentrated power was such a good thing. And that resulted in the breakup of NBC. So it resulted in the spinning off of ABC and to limits on the ownership of radio stations. And, of course, that brings us down to issues that are still very contemporary with us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So having traced the complicated path of American media up to 1941, how would you rate the balance of power between business and government and the individual today? Has it fallen out of equilibrium?
PAUL STARR: Well, I think the worries that Western Union provoked in the nineteenth century, the worries that the early radio networks provoked during the 1930's are worth recalling partly because we face those same issues today. And one of the things that I think is so valuable about the American tradition, here going back to the founding of our country, was a preference for a more decentralized system of communication that provided a tremendous amount of opportunity for new voices to be heard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what happened at various points in American history when various technologies got locked up by monopolies?
PAUL STARR: Well, one of the things, I think, that's good about the American pattern is that we generally haven't let the company or companies that dominate a prior technology from also controlling a new technology. So if you think about it, the post office didn't get control of the telegraph, as happened in Europe. And then Western Union didn't get control of the telephone. And then Bell Telephone didn't get control of broadcasting. So we had competition across the different means of communication. Now today, one of the things, again, that's worrying is that, of course, the media conglomerates span different media. We don't have that degree of separation, which I think was a very healthy influence in the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Starr, thank you very much.
PAUL STARR: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Starr is the author of The Creation of the Media, Political Origins of Modern Communications. (MUSIC)
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, reverberations from digital echo chambers, and what reporters really don't get about guns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR. (MUSIC)