The networks' convention coverage can be so mind-numbingly tedious that viewers are concocting their own strategies for staying awake. Some keep bowls of ping-pong balls by their TV chairs, ready to pelt the screen whenever noxious presences like Joe Lieberman, Mitt Romney or Laura Ingraham appear. Others play drinking games, downing a shot whenever the name "Bill Clinton" is uttered, with an extra shot taken if it's followed by the words "tension" or "bitter."
But to my mind, nothing beats tracking the clichés, empty-headed commentary and self-aggrandizing posturing of the news readers Linda Ellerbee long ago dubbed "twinkies," whose jobs depend more on their hairstyles and loud voices then their intelligence, perception or insight.
To help viewers at home get started with this sport, I've prepared a few basic rules. Feel free to add your own, and compare results with your family and friends at the end of the night. But to quote David Letterman, this is only an exhibition. This is not a competition. So please, no wagering.
"Look at Me! I'm Smart! I'm Smart!"
Many network correspondents realize that they don't have much expertise in their subjects and owe their employment (if they don't have great teeth and hair) to their ability to talk loudly and endlessly about very little in such a way that keeps viewers from switching to the Food Network. One favorite technique is to dress up the bleeding obvious with phrases that imply the presence of serious investigative journalism. NBC's David Gregory, (whose "Race for the White House" show has a decibel level that is 30% higher than OSHA safe standards), is fond of using the words "my reporting" at least once every sentence, as in "my reporting tells me that Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday night," or "my reporting is that the sun will come up in the morning and set in the evening."
Score 5 points for every undeserved pat on the back.
"It's Not 'Entertainment Tonight', But We Can Still Pretend"
When they're not being forced to cover politics, most cable "news" networks devote as much airtime as possible to the antics of Hollywood celebrities, in agreement with stars' view that their lives are far more important and interesting than anyone in Washington. (If Harry Reid and Brad Pitt were both drowning, and she only had one life preserver, whom do you think Campbell Brown would save?)
Once a celebrity's name gets associated with a politician, be it Paris Hilton, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West or Ernest Borgnine (well, maybe not Ernest Borgnine), the networks take every opportunity they can to make them part of their political coverage. One network correspondent furrowed her brow the other day and announced that she had figured out why so many stars came out for the conventions. "Either they are really interested in politics," she said, "or they have something to sell." Well, duh.
Score three points for every mention of a celebrity not currently serving as Governor of California. Award five bonus points for celebrity interviews in which the star fails to mention the name of any candidate for president.
"Can You Believe I'm Sitting Next To This Moron?"
A special category, invented for Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, who have so much airtime to fill and so little regard for one another that they often can't hide their mutual contempt.
Score five points for every Mathews/Oberman comment met with stony, or stupefied, silence.
"I'm Having More Fun Than You!"
Following the "happy talk" model of local news anchors, many network stars spend more time giggling and making personal remarks than interviewing guests or analyzing the news. Convinced that viewers find their lives more interesting than the future of the Republic, they prattle on about what they had for dinner, what Brad Pitt had for dinner (see above) and how much Kid Rock's song sounds like "Werewolves of London." (Well, actually, that's worth mentioning, at least to Warren Zevon fans).
Score four points every time Mika Brzezinski falls out of her chair laughing and Campbell Brown fusses with her hair.
"Never Mind Who's President--How Are Our Ratings?"
As I've previously written in this space hype frequently outweighs news delivery, as CNN and CNBC feverishly compete to attract more viewers to the dying dinosaur known as network news. Election coverage centers on gimmicks and self-promotion, with a little bit of reporting thrown in give the handful of actually knowledgeable analysts like Chuck Todd and Jeff Greenfield something to do.
Score five points every time CNN's John King plays with his electronic map. Six points for every mention on CNBC that the network is "the place for politics," and two points (because it happens so often) whenever Wolf Blitzer boasts about "the best political team on television."
Years ago, I created a similar Media Bias Detector for the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) that quoted Gore Vidal, who said "Of course, it is possible for any citizen with time to spare, and a canny eye, to work out what is actually going on. But for many there is no time, and the network news is the only news even though it may not be news at all but a series of flashing fictions intended, like the avowed commercials, to keep docile huddled masses, and keep avid for products addled consumers."
Now you have a way to fight back. Happy watching!