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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Bookshelves may be revealing in remote interviews

UPDATED: Tue., May 5, 2020

Jim Camden
Jim Camden

It is probably a sign of watching too many teleconferences and interviews with experts or reporters working from home that I have started looking over their shoulders to see what’s behind them.

Maybe one can determine something about the subjects of these home interviews by studying the bookshelves that often serve as the background and trying to read the titles. Or maybe, like most reporters, I’m just nosy.

The medical experts discussing COVID-19 tend to have technical books or rows of studies on their shelves. Politicians often have histories or biographies of famous statesmen. Hardly ever will you see a row of bodice-ripping romance novels or “50 Shades of Gray.”

This is likely not a perfect indicator of a person’s taste in reading. If you checked most bookshelves you’d probably find a layer of dust indicating the books haven’t been taken down and opened in years. One should always be suspicious of a prominently displayed Bible on an interviewee’s bookshelf: If it’s used regularly, it probably wouldn’t be sitting on a shelf in a corner of the home quiet enough for a good interview.

One also should be suspicious of a row of perfectly color-coordinated books, because they are just as likely to be there for looks as for content.

I thought about this last week when preparing to turn a corner of the family room into a temporary studio for the Northwest Passages community forum interview with Gov. Jay Inslee. Having seen multiple interviews of Inslee, I knew he’d have an impressive leather chair, with U.S and state flags for a backdrop.

I don’t have space for a flag in the family room so I had to up my bookshelf game and rearrange some volumes. I took out some novels acquired decades ago when I got them free to review, suspecting that viewers would know they’d been there since the shelves were built. They were replaced with more current offerings written by former Spokesman-Review colleagues like Jess Walter and Jim Lynch. (If you guys had a bump in sales last week, I want a cut.)

I moved in some books a viewer might expect a political reporter to have, like Woodward and Bernstein’s “The Final Days” and Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail.” I kept Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August.” Her book on how the plague helped push medieval Europe into the Renaissance,. “A Distant Mirror,” would have been a good addition, but it’s loaned out.

It reminded me of watching an interview of a member of Congress in a television studio on Capitol Hill years ago. There was a full bookshelf in the background, but something about the books looked strange. I asked the congressman’s press secretary if I was imagining things and he said no, the books had been cut in half before being placed on the shelf because they looked better that way on television.

While I can’t swear to have read every book on the shelf recently, I can attest to the fact that no book was harmed in the making of my backdrop.

Thinking of running for office?

Fair warning to Washington residents on the fence about running for political office this year: Time is running out to decide which way to jump.

The official filing period for some 300 federal and state offices on the 2020 ballot starts a week from Monday. The secretary of state’s office is encouraging candidates to file online, because it can be done anytime of the day or night between the official opening at 9 a.m. May 11 and closing time of 4 p.m. May 15. Filing for many positions can be done at county elections offices, but they aren’t open 24/7.

Some candidates have asked that the filing fee – which is 1% of an office’s annual salary – be waived this year because of the economic hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic, or at least that those who can’t afford the filing fee not have to gather signatures equal to one voter in that district for every $1 in the fee. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. So have your debit card or signed petitions handy when turning in your petition.

Song to wash by

Spin Control’s calls for suggestions to the pandemic playlist also generated another suggestion for a hand-washing song. Linda Morgan said her son uses “Stayin’ Alive.” The first verse will get you about 20 seconds before getting to the chorus.

The whole song would probably be a good addition to the playlist. We’re curating the list, with links to the songs, at the old blog website, Send suggestions to the email below.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described Barbara Tuchman’s books, because of an editing error.

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