By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The 300-year-old liberal media

Among the prevailing civic religions currently animating American political life, perhaps none is as long-lived as that of unfettered capitalism. A bit long in the tooth compared to its heyday during the Reagan years, the notion that government is the enemy of both individual liberty and economic freedom nevertheless remains a firmly established part of our mythology.

So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I read Paul Starr’s “The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications,” his 2004 book on why American media have, for better or worse, come to dominate the world. Because Starr – a Princeton University scholar who is co-editor of the American Prospect – argues persuasively that the US culture industry is such a success story not because of unfettered capitalism, but because of traditional liberalism.

By traditional liberalism, I mean not the laissez-faire liberalism of the 19th century, nor the pseudo-socialism with which liberalism is too often confused today. Rather, I’m talking about the political philosophy that prevailed for much of the 20th century, and especially between the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – that is, the belief in a mixed economy of capitalism and regulation, enhanced with some intelligent government policies about how best to improve society.

The phrase that Starr uses over and over again is “constitutive choices” – decisions made at an early point that have had far-reaching consequences over time. For instance, Starr explains the rise of the American newspaper industry, and its eventual dominance over the British, Canadian and European press, as the result of a number of conscious and semi-conscious decisions. To wit:

– In other Western societies, government has taxed the press. By contrast, from the time of the rebellion against the Stamp Act of 1765, the US government has not only not taxed the press, but it has also provided various tax incentives.

– A cheap, professional and reliable US Post Office, with special rates for newspapers, led to an inexpensive, extensive distribution network.

– Universal education, for the masses as well as for the elite, created an involved citizenry eager for the news provided by the early media.

– Government-subsidized roads and canals created additional distribution channels.

Starr offers example after example to bolster his thesis. For instance, magazines, which became the principal organ for investigative reporting in the last quarter of the 19th century, only took off after postal policies were changed to make the business more lucrative. In the early 20th century, the Supreme Court for the first time started putting some teeth into the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment, thus establishing the Constitution as a countervailing force at a time of rising business and governmental giantism. In the 1920s, then-secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover’s policies paved the way for a privately owned, publicly regulated radio industry, a regime that was later extended to television.

Starr seems troubled by this last development. Although he notes that the US had at least managed to avoid the government monopoly that prevailed in Europe, broadcast regulations – promulgated on the theory that the airwaves are a finite, privately owned resource – have prevented radio and television stations from enjoying the same First Amendment protections as their print counterparts. At the same time, the early bias toward commercial broadcasting (Starr notes that government regulations actually referred to nonprofit stations run by universities, religious groups and the like as “propaganda” stations) prevented the creation of modern public radio until the late 1960s.

In his summing-up, Starr writes:

STARR: The market, even when its products are distasteful, is a continual stimulus to innovation outside the market and in reaction to it. In a dynamic sense, markets in liberal societies enrich the public sphere far more than they impoverish it. If, however, all were left to the market – if government had not promoted communications networks, the press, education, and innovation while attempting to check tendencies toward excessive concentrations of power – the public sphere would be poor indeed. Our public life is a hybrid of capitalism and democracy, and we are better off for it, as long as the democratic side is able to keep the balance.

If that isn’t a good working definition of traditional liberalism, I don’t know what is.

Here, by the way, is an insightful review of “The Creation of the Media” written by James Fallows for the New York Times Book Review.

One obvious question raised by Starr’s book is this: What constitutive choices do we face today that might have long-range effects on the media that will be used by our children and beyond? Certainly the deregulatory stance taken by the FCC in recent years is worth examining, although that’s mainly about managing the death of Old Media.

My candidate for a constitutive choice we’ve got to get right is making sure that the broadband Internet – and its faster and more robust successors – remain wide open. Powerful business interests would love nothing better than to privatize these networks, banning rivals from using or charging them exorbitant rates, and favoring their own content over those of independents.

The organization that’s doing the most to ensure an open Internet is the Center for Digital Democracy, headed by the indefatigable Jeff Chester. Paul Starr has shown how crucial it was in the past to get it right. It’s just as important that we get it right in the future.

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  1. Gerald Keep

    Good reading, Dan!Then, of course, there is American Media, Inc. and Murdoch’s gang at News Corporation. Look at what is being said about poor little Martha Stewart:Super supermarket tab The Globe reports Martha Stewart is set to marry Microsoft apps granddaddy Charles Simonyi. The “paper” says the lovebirds have been “quietly dating” for about eight years. Yeah, right. What about Evi Quaid’s visits to “Villa Simonyi”? Quietly dating? “He’s one of the world’s richest men, but that’s not what attracted Martha to him. (Yeah, sure… it must have been the ‘007 Love Parlour’ upstairs). They’re like-minded people who are both at the top of their game. They’re also soul mates who can talk for hours,” The Globe reports. Awwww… isn’t that sweet?We’re kinda surprised Martha would go for a Microsoftie. Given her DIY roots, we’d peg her to fall for some open source geek.A top reliable source tells NBC’s Jeff Zucker that Simonyi leaked that bunch of false information to the Globe tabloid magazine with hopes that jazz guitarist and Martha admirer Edd Townsend would back off and stay away from Martha’s Bedford, NY estate during the times when Simonyi needed to fly back to his home in Seattle.Now Martha’s PR crew at the Magrino agency says “a can of worms has really opened now”. The truth is Simonyi doesn’t really want to marry Martha but doesn’t want Townsend around her either.It was reported that Simonyi hired a “spy” to keep tabs on Townsend after one of Martha’s farm hands mentioned that Martha hid the guitar player under her bed to keep from probation officers finding him. All of this is most interesting to say the least.”We’re still trying to contact Memrie Lewis in order to find out why Charles Simonyi would do such a thing,” a horse trainer told Zucker. “Edd seemed like a nice guy when I took two bales of hay up to Martha’s bedroom last week,” the farm hand added. “He might be a bit kinky but I believe that’s why Martha likes him.”Man, you nailed it here: “My candidate for a constitutive choice we’ve got to get right is making sure that the broadband Internet – and its faster and more robust successors – remain wide open. Powerful business interests would love nothing better than to privatize these networks, banning rivals from using or charging them exorbitant rates, and favoring their own content over those of independents.” I agree.We enjoy the good writings!G. Keep

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