Politics and media have shaped each other for 400 years
But this history goes off the air just before the modern era
America's press and government coexist uniquely, if uneasily. For people around the world, it's an inspiring and sometimes baffling relationship. To explain how we got here, Paul Starr, a Princeton sociologist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his history of American medicine, offers a detailed, engrossing, but truncated account of the political origins of modern communications.
Americans' unprecedented liberty, Starr claims, emerged from the nation's weak or divided state authority, generally expansive view of public rights, and later decisions to keep emerging information technologies privately owned. He deftly condenses 400 years of media invention, censorship, and independence, and he excels at tracing American governmental involvement in telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting.
Regrettably though, this story, which begins with 15th-century monastery manuscripts, ends abruptly in 1941, just as the complications of modern media begin to emerge. Starr defends his choice in a final page non sequitur - that after World War II, America's competitive communications system became a world export. But this editorial decision forestalls mention of many vital developments in libel, privacy, obscenity, and monopoly law, as well as the communications revolution sired by the Internet.
Fortunately, the history that Starr does provide is consistently interesting. We learn, for instance, that the mutual dance of dependence between press and government is an old one: 18th-century French officials leaked stories to papers in other countries that would have been doubted in their own country's censored press.
Starr traces the emergence of an independent press to 17th-century British parliamentary elections, which triggered the need to give voters opposing views. British defenses of free speech emerged as a driving force in America, where dissidents cited them to justify their criticism of the Crown.
Drawing on scores of sources, he scrutinizes the British roots and American legacy of prosecutions used to suppress speech or writing that allegedly undermined confidence in authority (as when Congress passed the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act and the Espionage Act of 1917).
He also punctures the myth that the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights ("Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.") trumps other rights because it came first, noting that it achieved primacy only because the states never ratified the first two amendments adopted by Congress.
Increased literacy and waves of immigration, as well as such canny marketers as James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst helped forge America's irreverent, independent press. And Starr rightly points out that constitutional protection, postal subsidies, and the absence of taxes or license fees let those and later innovators develop and prosper.
In this context, however, he fails to note an important press victory: President Theodore Roosevelt's attempt to prosecute Pulitzer for criminal libel was thwarted when federal and Supreme Court judges agreed that the matter could not be heard in federal court.
He also neglects to mention the increasingly controversial and complicated right of privacy, first articulated in 1890 by the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The question of just what Brandeis's "right to be left alone" means in age of microcameras and instant news is more important than ever.
The book suffers from other omissions as well. Starr provides too little analysis of the 18th-century colonialists' brutal treatment of Loyalist publishers and government censorship of Northern journals during the Civil War. While he's properly expansive on the US Post Office's role in suppressing allegedly offensive material, his long description of antiobscenity crusades and prosecutions neglects to mention how savvy publicity seekers from H.L. Mencken to Mae West used such strictures to advertise their wares - a trend that, of course, continues today in every medium.
Starr excels, though, at tracing governmental attempts first to foster radio's economic growth and then to nationalize it. Prominent 19th-century politicians had advocated similar federal ownership of the telegraph. In both cases, Starr shows, these remained in private hands. All the more reason, therefore, to welcome his views of the current media revolution, where innovation has both democratized news and led to journalism aimed at the lowest common denominator - gossip and rumors flooding the Internet and airwaves and percolating upward into the establishment media.
But instead, Starr leaves us with this thought: "Liberal democracy cherished the press as a public guardian, little anticipating its metamorphosis into a powerful industry with its own imperatives.... Some critics began to ask how to reconcile democratic ideas with the media's power and limitations. The problem has never been entirely addressed - it never will be."
It would have been nice if he had tried.
• William Kirtz is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.