Fake news? Media vitriol? In Philly it's as old as the nation's founding

Photos – user-contributed – Porcupines+Gazette21
The Sept. 6, 1797, edition of Philadelphia’s Porcupine’s Gazette.

These days, everybody is talking about fake news.

The intelligence community agrees that Russia disseminated fabricated stories during the 2016 presidential election to influence the results. Facebook recently admitted that foreign accounts bought $100,000 worth of ads to broadcast made-up news articles. Media talking heads use the phrase fake news  to delegitimize the reporting of their ideological adversaries.

Though the rapid and seemingly uncontrollable spread of fake news stems from distinctly modern phenomena — trolls, social media, and computer data analytics — political opponents accusing each other of spreading false stories is as old as the U.S. press itself.

Take, for example, the rhetorical warfare waged by William Cobbett, a British journalist who published the Porcupine’s Gazette in Philadelphia from 1797 to 1800. Under the pen name “Peter Porcupine,” Cobbett wrote screeds filled with libelous insults that tested the boundaries of the United States’ still-nascent free press.

Cobbett served as a foot soldier in the British army in Nova Scotia from 1784 to 1791. After briefly returning to Europe, he and his wife, Ann Reid, moved to the States in 1792, first settling in Wilmington.

On Nov. 2, 1792, Cobbett sent a deferential note to Thomas Jefferson seeking government employment. His networking attempt, however, proved unsuccessful. In his response, Jefferson informs Cobbett that “Public Offices in our Government are so few,” but politely suggests that the Englishman stay in touch.

It is interesting that Cobbett sought to curry favor with Jefferson, the most prominent Republican of the period. After moving to Philadelphia in January 1794, Cobbett quickly became a strident polemicist for the Federalists, a political movement with a considerably more pro-British stance than Jefferson’s Republicans.

Using the Peter Porcupine nom de plume, Cobbett began releasing vitriolic pamphlets in Philly. Historian William Reitzel remarks that Cobbett had “a taste for violent political discussion; he had also that capacity so necessary for a pamphleteer of seeing all events, even the most trivial, in those precise unshaded colors black and white.”

Cobbett founded the Porcupine’s Gazette in March 1797. Through sensationalist prose, the paper staunchly defended the recently inaugurated John Adams, a Federalist with British sympathies. Even before he founded the newspaper, Cobbett had developed a heated rivalry with the Philadelphia Aurora, an anti-Federalist newspaper published by William Duane and Benjamin Franklin Bache (grandson of Benjamin Franklin).

In one particularly devastating column published under the name “Paul Hedgehog” (an apparent jab at Cobbett’s moniker), the Aurora states that Peter Porcupine is a “celebrated manufacturer of lies, and retailer of filth.” It further states that this “pestiferous animal” was “obliged to abscond from his darling Old England to avoid being turned off into the other world before, what he supposed, his time.”

Violent rhetoric coursed throughout the war of words between the two papers. In his attacks, Cobbett describes the Aurora’s staff as his “enemies” and refers to the Porcupine’s Gazette and its editorials as his “formidable weapons.”

Both papers thrived, thanks in part to the captivating dispute that defined their relationship. Their success, however, also led to official scrutiny. Cobbett and Duane each served brief jail sentences for their scandalous political writings, a sign that they were pushing the limits of what the government and American society considered legitimate political discourse at the time.

Cobbett moved back to England in 1800, though he kept up his literary feud with Duane from overseas.

Occurring in the last years of the 18th century, this Philadelphia press battle serves as a historical corollary to the modern day. “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons,” Steve Bannon told the Weekly Standard after departing the White House and returning to Breitbart. Considering Cobbett’s conception of his own media endeavors as “weapons,” these two press figures are kindred spirits separated by 200 years.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org