Come in Spinner: The pants on fire test

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a US newspaper is either turgid beyond belief (New York Times) or a source of the many fantasies which so many US citizens seem to believe.

Yet there are exceptions. The St Petersburg Times in St Petersburg Florida publishes regular features under the heading PolitiFact with accompanying series such as a Truth-O-Meter TM. The service – with local variations – also appears in newspapers around the US. The one I saw was the Oregonian in Portland Oregon although Portland Oregon is not the best place in the US to get a perspective on the country – being a sort of weird, wacky and wonderful version of a Canadian town.

The Truth-O-Meter is delightful – rating politicians’ claims and attacks. The ratings range from True through Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False and Pants on Fire – the last being reserved for statements which are “not accurate and make a ridiculous claim.”

The service can be found at and it features RSS feeds plus Twitter and Facebook services. The Truth-O-Meter Pants on Fire ratings can be found here. A quick read of some of the statements says much about partisan politics in the US and makes one think that Tony Abbott is almost responsible and considered. Well not really, but you get the idea.

What is surprising is the specificity of the false claims. For instance a comment by Mike Prendergast, a Republican candidate in the last elections, accusing his opponent: “Congresswoman Castor voted to spend $2.6 million to teach prostitutes in China to drink responsibly.” Another statement accused a Congressman of voting for “Viagra for rapists’ paid for by tax dollars.

It is moot whether these claims are just made up or whether people who mouth them actually believe them. The claim that Obamacare was a “government takeover” of healthcare was a deliberate PR framing ploy but you can’t help thinking many US politicians, like some of their Australian counterparts, actually believe what they say.

Whatever, in Australia nobody much really makes any attempt to systematically nail them down in the same way Truth-O-Meter does. It would be great to see a similar service here – perhaps Crikey might be the vehicle.

There’s not much anyone can do about the scurrilous claims about politicians’ personal life which get circulated by all sides other than, thankfully, recognising that compared to the libels distributed in France (see Robert Darnton The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon) things here aren’t too bad.

But speaking of the US and France, my most recent trip coincided with belatedly catching up with the HBO series (based on David McCullough’s 2001 Adams biography) on John Adams and Abigail Adams – the latter rapidly becoming perceived, according to the historian and biographer Joseph J. Ellis, as a sort of Founding Mother.

The Adams TV series is great and reminds use that: not only does the US live in hypocrisy but it was also born in hypocrisy; and, that the true Founding Father of modern America and its system of privatised profits and socialised losses was Alexander Hamilton.

Meanwhile Come in Spinner is taking a break after almost a year of weekly columns. From now on, crikey willing, the columns will be intermittent and occasional rather than regular.

But in between times readers wanting to see some other views on public relations and spin should visit this site.

The URL is the work of Professor Tom Watson (with some assistance from Conor McGrath and Philip Young) professor of PR at The Media School Bournemouth University. He is also the convenor of the The International History of Public Relations Conference Bournemouth University (next one July 6-7, 2011). Details, including proceedings of the last conference, are available at

Tom says: “Over the past 3-4 years, I have been building an online listing of movies, TV, radio and books that focus on public relations and publicity or represent it in some way.” The update provides trailers and online database links.

If so many US citizens believe in fantasies, and Pants on Fire ratings are needed for politics here and there, equally much of what people believe about PR and its history is wrong as well. But that shouldn’t stop any of us enjoying The Sweet Smell of Success one more time – if only because it reminds us none of it would work without the symbiotic relationship the industry enjoys with journalists.