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Off with their heads! (OK, maybe just their pens)

Posted by: | September 13, 2011 | No Comment |

Few things are as passionate, dangerous or consequential as a population’s will to overthrow its government. Even today, people are exercising their rights to speak up against oppressors by way of assembly through mass media. After all, what could go wrong with a little power of the press?


A French guillotine, circa 1794

In fact, history has also shown us that a lot can go wrong if certain powers are put in the wrong hands.

The American Revolution saw the effects of crusading newspapers in the late 18th century. Inspired by their neighbors across the pond, the French soon followed suit with the hopes that they, too, could use press to promote their secession from the monarchy.

What the French chose to underestimate was the people’s determination to succeed in bringing down the Old Regime.

What followed was an underground movement of overblown truths and fabricated tellings of a monarchy that was infinitely worse than the real Louis XV regime. That’s not to say they weren’t authoritarian oppressors — that much is common knowledge — but if you think tabloids like the National Enquirer or Star Magazine are bad, imagine having a newsletter that ran false stories accusing your king of adultery twice a week and and your queen of being impregnated by a religious official — other than her husband…

Although not entirely reliable or credible, these pre-revolution tabloids were the only form of press in circulation at the time. The king banned it, and publishers suffered severe consequences if caught, but these libelous publications (Libelles) proved to be extremely influential in the mobilization process of the French Revolution.

“Most of the citizens of France had not only a propensity but a need to rely on rumor — on word of mouth — for information on what may have been the most important political events of their lives,” said Michael Stephens, author of “A History of News.”

While no one could tell which stories were true and which were false, the monarchy’s image was ruined, and thus, the people revolted.

It’s hard to believe in a time when libel and slander actually worked to benefit a society. Today, the constant fight is to keep subjectivity out of journalism. Historians might even look back at the Libelles of the French Revolution and wonder if the movement would have been as successful without them. Stephens asks:

Might a couple of accurate, widely distributed newspapers have saved Louis XVI’s head?

under: Comm 455, newspapers, Uncategorized
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