Perhaps the most fascinating spectacle emerging from last night’s debate didn’t come from the candidates, the undecideds, or even the spinners. It came from the on air personalities, who, over and over, subtly signaled their disdain for a process that has largely descended into kabuki theatre.

Telling was this comment from CNN’s Aaron Brown, who, just after midnight, seemed to be getting a little punchy: “Imagine — wow! That’s like, what, another shocker out of the spin room tonight.” Brown wasn’t the only CNN talking head employing sarcasm. When Candy Crowley said, “the spin is the Kerry people believe he won, and the Bush people believe he won,” Larry King responded, “What a shock!” Wolf Blitzer, perhaps even more frustrated than his colleagues, began his interview with Bush/Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman by saying, “I know you think your candidate won.” But, hell, Blitzer seemed to be thinking — we might as well do this thing anyway.

Before the debate, CNN showed live shots of the spin room, portraying it as an exciting place where viewers would see the spinners crossing rhetorical swords over what had been said by the two candidates. But the talking heads knew better, and they had trouble hiding their disdain for the fact that what had actually transpired in the hall had little impact on what the partisan surrogates would say. Still, despite the fact that everyone involved knew that the spinners were spinning, there were those who took the bait. Witness this statement from CNN’s John King, soon after the debate: “I got an email about two thirds of the way through from a Republican who was dispirited after the last debate, and that email said, thank God. So Republicans, I think, will be very happy.”

A Republican emailed a CNN analyst to suggest Bush had done well in the debate? To quote Larry King: What a shock!

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.