Last fall semester I did quite a bit of reading on the history of mass communication spanning from the birth of print media to the 20th century. Among the numerous topics on media and its political, social, economic and cultural relations, one intriguing issue to me is the interaction of media with the State throughout the centuries. What kind of role did the State play in encouraging or discouraging print culture and the later mass media? The following is a list of the works that I believe have most effectively addressed this question.
Paul Starr’s “The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications” stands out first as it most effectively presents the role of the state in creating the overall modern communications, from the beginning of printing media to the early days of radio. He shows that the creation and development of the print and new media of 20th century were largely shaped by politics.
Starr devotes most of his book to the print history, showing how America “has followed a distinctive path in communications ever since the American Revolution” (p. 2) due to the political choices by the state. In details, he examines “the four waves of institution-building” (p. 12) in American history that contributed to the development of print culture. The first one was the American Revolution. The opposition to the British stamp tax provoked a political storm that supported the colonial independent newspapers that charged against British imperial policies. The new American government after the Revolution and the writing of the Constitution – the second wave – not only protected freedom of speech and opened the government up to public scrutiny, but also subsidized newspapers instead of taxing them. Thus, a decentralized free press was encouraged by the state’s “strong positive commitments to information and communications” (p. 16). The third wave, the development of institutions, particularly the Post Office, created the comprehensive national networks of newspapers. The Post Office Act of 1792 gave newspapers discounted mailing rates and encouraged a rapid extension of postal routes throughout the U.S., which ensured faster, more efficient and wider communications networks than its British and Continental counterparts. The fourth wave was the popular press during the 1830s, which was mainly led the market and capitalism but benefited from state policies. As Starr notes, the Copyright Act of 1790 and anti-monopoly strain guaranteed a restrictive view of intellectual property rights and price competition that encouraged cheap popular print and mass marketing.
Examples abroad are given in the cases of British and French print. In Britain, newspapers were heavily censored by the state when they first appeared. The following licensing system and stamp tax, along with other policies, largely limited the growth of printing press. Even though the print culture expanded in the 17th and 18th century’s England, a larger “public sphere” and market that permitted the newspaper to thrive were not yet in position. Likewise, down to the revolution, the French state continued to exert direct supervision over the print by prepublication censorship and book police. “Royal privileges structured the entire domain of print” (p. 42). As a result, the domestic publishing was heavily restrained while extraterritorial printers flourished the realm of print in the Netherlands or Switzerland as they tried to escape the strict regulations in their own country. Hence the different influences of the states on the print culture distinguished the U.S. as “a leader in certain aspects of communications” (p. 13) by 1850 even before it became a world power.
Among those efforts that encouraged American print culture, the establishment of the Post Office and its postal system was a significant move led by the state. Richard R. John’s “Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse” is another book that elaborates the role of U.S. postal system in communications revolution and its contribution to American society, in which the federal government played a leading part.
Designed and funded by the government as a political institution, the postal system spurred the communications revolution that created links among people, locals, and social groups. John first chapter examines the policy and structural innovations that guaranteed the state’s postal dominance in the communications revolution. He notes that the Post Office Act of 1792 laid the groundwork for a greatly expanded postal network that permitted the spreading of the newspapers through the mails. John also mentioned one of the central political-administrative figures of the early postal system, Postmaster General John McLean, and the federal level politics and administrative innovations under his leadership. In the form of the Post Office Department, the federal state consolidated its political and administrative power that bound the confederation of states together, and therefore boosted the communications networks for newspapers.
Partisanship and the state were closely connected in John’s sixth chapter, in influencing the postal system as well as the communications networks. Hostile to the growing influence of the postmaster general in national politics, the ruling Jacksonians implemented the rotation in office by dismissing a large number of Federalist postmasters, including John McLean, during Jackson’s presidential administration from 1828. This extensive partisan dismissal transformed the postal system from “the central administrative apparatus of the American state” into “a wellspring of the mass party” (p. 206). John argues that this policy had a major effect on postal administration, by reducing the level of service from the previously effective and skilled one under McLean to a partisan tool with a reported rise of postal mishaps. This in turn affected the operation of national communications networks not only by causing service misconducts, but also by marking the era of partisan newspapers that sprang up for their own party interests. Therefore, by examining the federally supported postal system and the impact of partisanship, John offers a more specific evidence of the role of the state in affecting print culture.
Turning to the 20th century, Starr’s “The Creation of the Media” depicts the early growth of radio under the influence of the state.
Starr’s account of the rise of radio networks to dominance reflects the radio’s dependence on political policy. Radio came into being in the 1920s when the U.S. government did bidding to auction frequencies. In the following years, political decisions about the basic structures and rules of broadcasting largely determined “what kind of medium radio was going to become” (p. 328), by determining the number of broadcasting stations, the range and quality of their reception, and the extent of their autonomy, etc. The Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was established in 1926 and made radio regulations. Its favor on licensing commercial rather than non-profit stations generally promoted the interests of big stations and subsequently contributed to the monopolies of powerful national network radio.
Outside the U.S., Starr gives an example of the telecommunications in the Soviet Union to show the influence of the state’s policy on communication systems. After taking power in 1917, the Soviet leaders gave priority to developing loudspeakers and broadcasting over other communication methods. This largely encouraged the vertical broadcasting process in which the state conveyed its information to the people while discouraged the horizontal communication between the people. This led to the imbalance in the development of telecommunications in the Soviet Union, with markedly fewer telephones than Western Europe and the U.S. and a powerful broadcasting system in 1991.
Douglas Craig’s “Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940” provides a closer insight into the development of the U.S. radio shaped by state policy.
Under the supervision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its predecessors, an “American system” was developed with the consensus that “stations served the public interest when they broadcast programs that supported rather than challenged majority cultural and political views” (p. 101). Hence large commercial stations and radio networks enjoyed policy benefits while universities and other educational institutions found it difficult to maintain stations because of license restrictions. Consequently, compared to the state-sponsored BBC in Britain that aimed at uplift and public education, the U.S. broadcasters, such as NBC and CBS, “preferred to entertain rather than educate” citizens (p. 216). Besides, the golden days of broadcasting were much associated with ongoing political processes. Craig examines the interactions between network radio and presidential campaigns from 1924 to 1940. He concludes that the U.S. network radio was largely adopted to serve as reinforcement of the dominance of political parties rather than stimulating citizenship. Politicians’ use of radio, like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, not only established a model for a political figure, but also reflected the politically nourished radio under the interests and policy of the state.
The cold war was the era that witnessed the large-scale use of media by the state as a tool of propaganda. Kenneth Osgood’s “Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad” well presents the U.S. government’s propaganda practices for “hearts and minds of people on the other side of that curtain” (p. 2) by use of mass communications.
Osgood reveals that the U.S. psychological warfare program falls into two strategies: overt propaganda, which acknowledged U.S. sponsorship, including VOA broadcasts, films, and press items; and covert propaganda that used the independent news media to convey messages. Particularly, radio was used as a vital communications medium with various tactics toward different targeted countries. VOA, for example, was established to focus on the Soviet Union and China disguised in a factual and neutral way. Therefore, the mass communications, such radio, film, and press were highly supported by the state to serve in the battle of propaganda.
Exploring the role of State in media will be an endless complex. However, Starr, John, Craig and Osgood’s works have constructed a whole picture of the interplay between the State and the print culture and new mass media of 20th century, with insights into various historical periods, media forms and specific issues.