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Princeton Professor Discusses Threats to Free Press


The Rise—and Fall—of American Media

A Princeton University professor discusses the origins of the media and recent trends that threaten a free press.

The country’s Founding Fathers used the Constitution to pave the way for an American free press that operates in the public interest. However, that system is in jeopardy due to the rise of media conglomerates and their increasing influence on what news is and is not reported.

That’s according to Pulitzer-Prize winning author Paul Starr, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Princeton University, who discussed his new book, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (Basic Books, 2004), on Sept. 23 in the South Lounge on the Lincoln Center campus.

“The United States has been an early and persistent leader in the development of media,” said Starr, “and America has a long tradition of making choices in communications with concern for fundamental expression.”

America was the first country to embody the principle of a free press in its constitution. Unlike Britain and France, which levied heavy taxes on the press, the United States historically subsidized newspapers, including those that were critical of government, according to Starr. The result was a media market crowded with newspapers espousing disparate opinions and views.

Government support of the free exchange of information is still evident in America today, according to Starr, in the government’s limited regulation of the Internet. That choice has allowed the Internet to emerge as one of the most powerful forums for the uncensored exchange of ideas.

But Starr is concerned about the future of American media because of media consolidation and the emergence of mega-media corporations. Over the past decade, ownership of most newspapers, television and radio stations has become concentrated in the hands of a few publicly traded corporations, including Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and General Electric.

This raises a number of concerns, said Starr. Public companies are beholden to stock holders and a healthy bottom line, which may lead corporate managers to make editorial decisions based more on a report’s ability to attract advertisers than to serve the public interest. Quality journalists and news programs may be cut in the interest of turning a profit. News reports that reveal unflattering information about the corporate parent or advertisers may be suppressed or not pursued at all. Finally, fewer independent media outlets can also mean fewer outlets for alternative viewpoints to be expressed and discussed.

“Starr’s discussion put the matter of media concentration into incremental context,” said Everette E. Dennis, Ph.D., Felix E. Larkin Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Communications. “[Media consolidation] didn’t happen overnight, and its solution won’t come easily, either.”

Starr’s presentation was part of the Fordham Business Schools’ Center for Communication’s “Media Research Luncheon Series.” Upcoming lectures include “The Economics of the News,” with James Hamilton, Ph.D., professor at Duke University, on Oct. 28; and “Electronic Publishing Ventures,” with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Pablo J. Boczkowski, Ph.D., on Nov. 11.

— John Blakeley

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