Unraveling a few political myths in spin city

Everything You Think You Know About Politics ... And Why You're Wrong By Kathleen Hall Jamieson Basic Books 220 pp., $15

There are always so many people talking in Washington it is natural to think of the city as the home of the opinion. The District has spawned television and radio shows - and networks - devoted to opinion. It has a class of journalist, the punditocracy, devoted solely to filling Americans with opinions.

That's why it is so odd that there are so few different ideas floating around this city. Washington, our nation's leading exporter of opinions, is actually the nation's biggest center of groupthink.

The right and left may jostle for position on issues, but once a conventional wisdom forms, journalists latch onto it and that idea tends to dominate the news.

In this environment, there's much value in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's latest book, "Everything You Think You Know About Politics ... And Why You're Wrong." In 220 pages, Jamieson takes on almost every bit of conventional wisdom you've ever heard - campaigns don't matter, negative ads hurt voter turnout - and challenges it with facts and figures. For the most part, she succeeds in debunking myths.

The book begins with a true-or-false quiz that questions the reader's assumptions about politics and states. "Most presidents make a strong effort to keep most of their promises." True. "The quality of general election campaigns has steadily worsened over the years." False.

But even those who ace the quiz will almost certainly learn some things from this book. Jamieson's section on political advertising is particularly instructive - she argues in one chapter that "ad watches" created to evaluate the claims in political ads are sometimes misconstrued by voters as endorsements.

Jamieson also does an excellent job of looking at how political bias in the newsroom affects coverage. Who gets the most positive coverage, it turns out, has little to do with political philosophy and everything to do with front-runner status. There is a sort of Newtonian logic to it: A candidate at rest tends to stay at rest, because coverage shows him as failing.

One serious warning: This is not beach reading. Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is an academician and this book is written in that tone and voice.

Actually, much of the book is recycled Annenberg research. There is nothing wrong with republishing important work but not even brevity can save language like: "What is less clear from previous research is whether the overrepresentation of persons of color in problem stories is the result of ethnocentric discursive practices introduced by news professionals or a function of problem behavior as reported to authorities, such as police."

Furthermore, the book's effort to discredit as much conventional wisdom as possible yields some chapters that can't help but create a few "yeah, but...." objections. In one chapter, for instance, Jamieson argues contrary to popular belief that Bill Clinton has done a remarkable job of keeping the majority of his promises. That may be true, but it isn't just keeping promises that matters with voters, it's keeping the promises they remember. Clinton broke two of his biggest - the middle-class tax cut and gays in the military - in his first term.

Not all of the research is good news for those who care about politics. But at the very least there is honest information and, in the endless spin cycle of Washington, that's no small thing.

Dante Chinni writes political commentary for the Monitor from Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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