Mid-Semester Reflection

For me, the most interesting chapter in Paul Starr’s book, The creation of the media: political origins of modern communications, was chapter 5: The First Wire A Path for the Telegraph Monopoly on the Wires Wiring the News[1]. I think this chapter stood out to me for two reasons, one being that it is the most modern form of communication up to this time so we have been able to see how far communications have progressed and where they can lead to from here, but secondly Starr sees this development as both a good and bad thing for the country. Obviously newer developments are a plus for a growing nation, and the jobs it provided. But Starr also acknowledges that it leads to a monopoly for Western Union, and that it was risky for the nation. Starr argues that this was the fault of the Democratic Party, because under their control and distrust of the federal government they privatized the new form of media, even though its initial project was funded by the federal government. He also makes the interesting point that news was previously controlled by the government with the postal service and that worked just fine. He goes on to say that In 1851 there were as many as fifty companies involved in this new market, but by 1866 the market was widely controlled by Western Union. Starr lets it be known that at this point a private corporation now has the possibility to control the information that is being spread, and there was a real divide about whether this was a good thing for business, or something that should be controlled by the state, much like the model seen in Europe before us. He also uses the example of the election of 1876, where the associated press used its influence over the mass media and communication to push for republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. Even with the risks taken into account, Starr is able to see the positive side of the argument as well. For one, for the first time ever, news was circulated around the country much faster than ever before. Previously it had to be taken in its physical form to get the news across, but now with the use of wires it can get there quicker and easier. He also believes that the fact that the American people were more in favor of a government controlled system for the telegraph, kept Western Union from abusing its power and censoring the information being circulated. In this chapter Starr provides both the advantages and disadvantages to this new system, but really allows us to see how this new technology came to be, and allows for the reader to come up with their own decision about whether or not it was created the right way, or if it should have been done differently.

My personal reflection on the chapter is that Starr gave me a much clearer political insight to the telegraph, and made me aware that it wasn’t necessarily a perfect creation. New technologies are always good to improve our lives, and the difficulty (or lack thereof) in the way we communicate. But his idea about censorship is one that is still relevant today. We constantly hear stories about the monitoring of phone calls, or whether or not the news and media is telling the truth or just lying to us. And although we don’t necessarily see monopolies, we see companies like AT&T and Verizon dominating the market, and because of that controlling the accessibility we have to the newer technologies. No matter how advanced we become, I think that Media and Communication can always be related back to this chapter in Starr because growth always comes with the opportunity for business.

[1] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 206.

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