If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And if freebies were viewers, CNN and MSNBC would ride a little higher, at least in convention-week ratings.

Every third pedestrian in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden on Tuesday held in his hand a round, red cardboard fan, stapled to what was either a popsicle stick or a tongue depressor and adorned with a white “CNN” logo. There were also more than a few MSNBC fans in view (square in shape, different logo, more color) on the Garden-area sidewalks.

Both networks appeared to have a similar battle plan: Shock and awe Garden-goers and average New Yorkers alike by deploying an army of t-shirted young interns to dispense slogans and schwag in every direction. In addition to the flimsy fans, some of CNN’s soldiers were armed with round lapel pins and refrigerator magnets which they sprung on unsuspecting shoppers exiting Macy’s. MSNBC’s warriors promised “free t-shirts, free hats” to anyone willing to “attend a live taping” (huh?) of “Hardball,” broadcasting this convention week across from Macy’s on that tiny sliver of land called Herald Square.

Key to any war is claiming and protecting territory, and MSNBC’s stronghold appeared to begin east of 7th Avenue on 34th street, while CNN owned 34th between 7th and 8th. But Herald Square is exposed, with no natural barriers to attackers, which allowed for some bold encroachments by CNN. Campaign Desk was handed its first red CNN fan just a few feet away from where “Hardball“‘s Chris Matthews sat with his guest panel talking about how “Rudy cooked Kerry’s goose.” And we witnessed three MSNBC interns react to the sudden appearance of CNN fan folks on the south side of Herald Square: “Here we go,” a female MSNBC intern warned her cohorts, sounding for all the world like a combat commander: “We’ve got competition.” At which point the MSNBC-ers redoubled their recruitment efforts, exhorting passersby a little louder and with a pinch more enthusiasm to “ATTEND A LIVE TAPING RIGHT NOW!” Those few who took them up on their pitch and became part of “Hardball’s” audience were rewarded with red foam sticks with “Hardball” printed on them, which they were told to wave excitedly when the cameras panned the audience.

Like any good infantry, a platoon of MSNBC interns also snuck behind enemy lines. Two young women in shorts were seen handing out what looked like “Hardball” bumper stickers near 8th Avenue — CNN turf. So CNN sent in reinforcements with fancier uniforms (now a navy CNN visor in addition to the standard t-shirt). One of the new recruits appeared to suffer an attention span disorder, if his slogan-shouting was any indication: “CNN! America’s …” — glance down at lapel button to confirm — “… campaign headquarters!”

Campaign Desk decided to poll a few of the walking wounded to determine whether they were truly fans of one or the other cable network, or merely fans of the freebie fans on a muggy late-August day. By dusk, the only fan-holders in sight were of the CNN variety, suggesting who might be winning the war. And, surprisingly, four of the five fans surveyed gave rave reviews to “America’s Campaign Headquarters,” insisting that they liked both the cardboard fan and the news network, and offering shreds of evidence that they actually watched CNN from time to time.

The fifth fan-holder, a teenage boy, appeared to have little enthusiasm for the freebie or the news organization. He repeatedly threatened his friend with his CNN fan as they walked west on 34th street. After inadvertently whacking an attractive, and unamused, female pedestrian with the fan, he abandoned his weapon on the sidewalk and hustled to catch up, apologize — and flirt.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.