The friend of the people Pt. 2
Who was Jean-Paul Marat, the witch hunting journalist? Three modern alter-egos that explain his abrasive personality.
This is part of a four-part series on Jean-Paul Marat and the second in a study of the history of witch hunts. I’ll be releasing one part every Monday. The first part will always be free, and the rest will have a short preview before it goes behind a paywall. Please consider supporting this venture by becoming a paid subscriber, so I can continue to spend the time to research and write these!
Continue reading a short preview below…
I recently began a job with a regional newspaper. In my first few training days, my manager and I discussed editorial columns and the public’s perception that they should be fair and unbiased. After all, journalists are usually trained to write Just the News™. But op-eds and letters to the editor are a different story entirely. Often, your average newsreader can’t tell the difference. The New York Times and Washington Post have gone to great lengths to give readers signposts that they are reading the opinion section.
We chatted about how to indicate between news and opinions for readers and how to filter for quality. At the end of our conversation, she said, “But the news has always had this problem. Sometimes readers take opinion as fact.” And it hit me — she was right.
Even over two centuries ago, Jean-Paul Marat knew this. Many journalists will use this knowledge to present many different voices and takes on current events — to add to the public constitution of knowledge. But what set Marat apart is that he instead used this knowledge to control the narrative.
If you read Part 1 of this series, you may have picked up on the peculiar similarities between 1793 and 2022. In truth, the way we use the news media — especially in times of great uncertainty — hasn’t changed much since the French Revolution.
Historian Lindsay Porter said of the political climate of revolutionary France:
“Rumours flourish in times of anxiety; they thrive on ambiguity and uncertainty, filling the void left by lack of information. They are an articulation of fear, of hope, or of desire. Rumours spread because they are believed, at some level, to be true; in expressing them communities are able to share a collective concern.”1
Over the past two years, I can’t help but see how many rumors have flourished because of our lack of access to real, authoritative information. We’ve separated ourselves into political factions, not unlike the Girondins and Jacobins. We post our rumors to Twitter and are delighted to have our suspicions confirmed when they appear on the pages of The New York Times.
In short, we haven’t changed a bit. So what did this look like 229 years ago? Let me introduce you to a wily rascal with whom you’ve never met but might be too familiar.
Who was Jean-Paul Marat?
“Thus it is in revolutions: one rascal writes and a hundred thousand fools believe.” —Arthur Young
Marat was a Swiss-born French politician, physician and failed scientist turned journalist. Early in his career, he attempted to write and publish scientific papers but could not get into the Academy of Sciences. Some historians like Louis Gottschalk theorized that this caused him to have a martyr complex.2 Thus our protagonist has his origin story.
But if Marat were alive today — tweeting his revolutionary drivel — I imagine he would have a similar personality to three big players in American media: Kanye West, Chris Rufo and Michael Hobbes.
Hear me out…
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