June 10, 2004

by Reb Yudel
How America created its media and its media created America

James Fallows reviews 'The Creation of the Media': The American Information Revolution for the New York Times:
'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.

The original moment, which Starr calls ''America's first information revolution,'' stretched from the Colonial era through the eve of the Civil War. Its distinctive trait was the intentional expansion, through cheap postage, cheap schools and cheap newspapers, of the population included in communications and therefore able to take part in public and political life. A surprise hero of Starr's book is the early Post Office, which differed from post offices in Europe in two crucial ways. It reached into the American hinterland at low rates, closing the information gap between city and countryside. And American postmen, unlike their counterparts in France and England, did not double as spies and security agents for the central government. Starr also shows how the public schools of the Northern states steadily broadened their enrollment, while those in the South did not. He has a long and detailed explanation of the policies that made books and newspapers radically less expensive in America than in Europe -- and of the political and cultural effect of the world's first truly mass circulation press. Collectively, Starr says, such measures indicated a concern ''with building not just a continental nation but a republican one.'' They were designed to make America's communications system broader and less centralized than Europe's, and they worked.

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