Gloria Borger and Donna Brazile are squeezed next to each other on a red faux-leather booth with two younger staffers. Around them, patrons munching on giant burgers and salads in soccer-ball-sized bowls—and downing beers and cocktails and shots of various varieties—glance furtively at their fellow diners, their faces displaying the I’m-gawking-but-trying-to-seem-blase-about-it look that is common on so many faces during the conventions.

My face is probably displaying the same look. I’m in the vaunted CNN Grill, after all, The Peach Pit (or The Max or, if you prefer, the Arnold’s) of the media in town for the convention. The Grill is, realistically, a run-down restaurant the network has taken over, situated just outside the Xcel Center’s perimeter, a 30-foot-tall or so fluorescent sign (“CNN Grill,” framed by a giant star) making its presence known. It is, realistically, a kind of Applebee’s-meets-temple-of-CNNism, where the beer is cold and the food is free.

But it’s more than that: Notwithstanding the glut of CNN paraphernalia displayed on the walls, the windows, the TVs, the tables, the clothing of staff members, and pretty much every other spare surface in the place, the Grill isn’t really about CNN. It’s about, yep, us. The Grill is, among many other things, a kind of sociological experiment, diner-ized.

The restaurant is as sardine-packed as it is—and the line of people waiting to gain entry into it in the unseasonably cold St. Paul evening is as long as it is—because of little more than sheer force of will. Or, perhaps more precisely, because of a CNN marketing exec’s appreciation of the fact that the best way to convert banality into the hottest ticket in town is to tell people they can gain access to that banality only if they have a pass.

Indeed, in Denver as well as in St. Paul, the only thing that got media members as excited as gaining a much-coveted floor pass to the convention events was gaining a ticket to the CNN Grill. Which, you know, considering what the latter ticket actually gets you—a free burger and the chance to brush elbows with Wolf Blitzer—would seem to make the results of the experiment CNN marketing: 20; Everyone else: O.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.