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The Media Was Created and Can Be Recreated

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The most interesting aspect of the turmoil that has beset the broadcast media, its corporate masters, the FCC, and the public in the wake of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl slip has been the philosophical arguments either for or against media content regulation.

Many have taken an absolute or near-absolute free speech stance and said they don’t want the government to regulate the content of the media at all: that Janet and Howard Stern and the Love Sponge and other assorted miscreants should be able to do whatever they want over the air and that the marketplace should be the final arbiter (which it ultimately is anyway).

I have argued that unlike any other media, including satellite, cable or the Internet, the airwaves are inherently limited in capacity and owned by the public and available without mediation to anyone with the equipment to receive the signals, therefore it is entirely right and proper for the public to determine – and its representatives in government to implement and enforce – standards of what is and is not appropriate material: that the media, in other words, can be directed on a meta level and as a people it is not inevitable that we accept “anything goes” from our media, at least our media braodcast over the public airwaves.

In a NY Times book review of Paul Starr’s THE CREATION OF THE MEDIA: Political Origins of Modern Communications, James Fallows discusses just this theme:

    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.

    ….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.

    Beginning in the mid-1800’s, Starr says, the United States made its next set of basic choices about media, driven by the arrival of electronic communications: the telegraph, telephone and radio. The political circumstances for these decisions were very different from those of the early Republic. More confidence in business and less perceived need for governmental guidance of national growth meant that all three new technologies were developed by private companies in America, while governments controlled them in Europe. Starr underscores the economic importance of the telegraph. For instance, it allowed trains going opposite directions to share a single set of tracks, with sidings, eliminating the need for double tracks. The telegraph also introduced the modern concept of news, because papers across the country could report on the same event at the same time. The telephone was if anything more important in bringing people from every location into a common information system.

    Starr’s third and longest section describes the forces that had created recognizable modern media by the beginning of World War II, including the rise of movies, the growth of nationwide broadcast networks, the heyday of magazines and the erratic application of formal and informal controls on the media’s content. The modern era, as he presents it, was in some ways a fall from grace. Until roughly the beginning of World War I, America’s ”distinctive path in communications” had led to systems that grew earlier and faster than anywhere else; that included more rural people and the nonelite; and that sustained unusually rapid technological innovation. Since then American media have enjoyed obvious successes, like world dominance in movies, but Starr examines some shortcomings, like the deterioration of commercial radio into a mere vehicle for ads. And this is before he even gets to television.

    Starr’s account ends in 1941, with an implied promise of a further volume to discuss what’s happened since. The decisions he describes are striking to the modern reader not so much because they turned out a certain way, but because they were made at all. They suggest a belief that societies and their governments can affect the path that technologies and markets take, rather than an acceptance of whatever the path turned out to be as inevitable. This concept seems utterly missing from current discussions of the media. Regulators and the public feel there is little they can do to steer the content or quality of the media (with the feeble exception of the F.C.C.’s punishing broadcasters for vulgarities that would barely be noticed on cable). Members of the media feel they have no choice but to give, immediately, what the market demands.

    At a recent forum on media coverage of the Iraq war at the University of California, Berkeley, a network television producer finally tired of the torrent of criticism. If you don’t like what you see, stop watching, he said. That was the way consumers could exercise ”choice.” Paul Starr’s original and compelling book shows that it’s not the only sort of choice available to the public.

Exactly: we can choose to choose, which is what the public’s strong reaction to the Jackson exposure and its aftermath is really all about.

It wasn’t the actual exposure that caused the reaction, it was that this clearly transgressive incident acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back, the catalyst for the public to say, “Wait a minute, we don’t have to put up with this if we don’t want to, and we don’t want to.”

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About Eric Olsen