10/30 Mid-Semester Reflection (Option 4)

An issue from our reading of Paul Starr that I would like to learn more about was the concept of “constitutive choices.” According to Starr, the development of media was formed by the constitutive choices of colonial policy makers. Starr wrote that, “The communications media have so direct a bearing on the exercise of power that their development is impossible to understand without taking politics fully into account, not simply in the use of the media, but in the making of constitutive choices about them.”[1] This makes perfect sense, although I was a little confused about the definition the author gave, not in semantics, but rather its application: “Constitutive choices emerge in a cumulative, branching pattern: Early choices bias later ones and may lead institutions along a distinctive path of development, affecting a society’s role and position in the world.”[2] So Starr is in essence saying that once these choices are made, they determine how new technologies are applied and control those technological relationships between the media and government. Got it!

What I found interesting is although Americans and Europeans both used the same innovations, such as the printing press, telephone, etc., they did not use them in the same manners and, therefore, made different constitutive choices. For example, Starr documented that, “Different political decisions in America and Europe were a key source, though not the only cause, of American’s early edge in newspapers and newspaper reading…European policy restricted the circulation of newspapers by raising their cost; American policy increased their circulations by reducing their cost. The United States admitted newspapers into the mails at any post office, whereas other countries generally allowed newspapers only to be sent from the capital.”[3] In the case of the British, this was done to quell any potential opposition to the government and so taxes were used to make newspapers unattractive to publishers and suppress their development. My discussion question would be is Starr arguing that every division of the media system is due to specific political choices made under specific political circumstances?

I feel he is arguing this point up to and including the last chapter we read on the telegraph. He went all the way back to the Stamp Act tax of 1765 and The British stamp tax on American colonies to argue that point: “Far from stifling the press, however, the Stamp Act politicized it…others [printers] put their newspapers at the service of the resistance by reporting protests, championing the cause, and perhaps most important, providing a forum for discussion and helping to turn what could have been more disorder into a more coherent opposition movement.”[4] So, ironically, with taxes on the press, the British triggered in the colonies exactly what they were trying to prevent in the mother country. The constitutive choices made by the British government set in motion the development of communications and the public sphere in the United States. I refuse to believe that politics are involved in every constitutive choice made. What about the clear social aspects that serve as the catalyst to the political decisions? For example, the media culture that invariably springs from mass media, such as that promulgated by the post office service, certainly has the power to affect change regarding media and communications. Doesn’t this culture have as much influence on the constitutive choices made since people choose what they read or view based on what they like? Therefore, media culture would have to exert considerable influence on those choices. It is in this aspect I feel Henkin’s book picks up the slack and completes the argument regarding constitutive choices. He documented how transient newspapers led to the postal reduction of 1845, clearly demonstrating at least the equal influence of society on constitutive choices.


[1] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 1.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 91–92.

[4] Ibid., 65.


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