What Would Room Rater Say?

There was a TV commercial for Renuzit air freshener that ran half a century ago and scarred everyone who saw it. In the ad, a housewife has invited friends over to play bridge. But, as the ladies enter her home, they sniff, wrinkle their noses, and make mortifying comments along the lines of “Fried fish last night?” and “I thought George gave up cigars.” The message was clear: anytime you allow people to enter your home, it—and you—will be ripped to shreds.Such pitiless scrutiny is precisely what the coronavirus lockdown has forced on America’s media personalities: if they want to remain on our screens, they must invite us, and our judgments, into their living rooms, bedrooms, and, in some cases, bathrooms. News shows are a special problem area, with viewers whipsawed between Trump said what? and Who thought those sconces were a good idea? Fortunately, an authoritative Twitter feed appeared in April to codify our cattier impulses. It’s called Room Rater (@ratemyskyperoom), and, although often generous, it has earned a reputation as the pandemic’s Mr. Blackwell.For instance, when Beto O’Rourke did an interview from what looked like the dank basement in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Room Rater gave him a 0 out of 10, and commented, “Oh, dear god. Organizing rescue mission. Blink twice if you can hear me.” When Ann Coulter streamed herself positioned in front of a large black TV screen in a room painted a putrid yellow-green, she got a 0, too. The review—“Pretty much what you’d expect. Puke and a big TV”—received more than ten thousand likes.Renuzit is no help here. Neither is sticking a ficus in the corner, although Samantha Vinograd, a national-security analyst on CNN, earned Room Rater bonus points by adding orange tulips to a handsome bookshelf. “She was definitely upping her game,” said Claude Taylor, who launched the feed with his girlfriend, Jessie Bahrey. Taylor started Room Rater from a place of love, after admiring the wood-panelled den of a scientist he saw on cable news, and also the depth of field in the scientist’s shot. The ratings are freely subjective, Taylor explained, and largely unburdened by professional expertise. He once worked as a travel photographer, so he tends to “think in terms of lighting/perspective/composition. Jessie has good taste. But that’s all.” The couple is quarantining apart: Bahrey manages a commercial greenhouse in British Columbia, and Taylor, who is based outside Washington, D.C., runs Mad Dog, a progressive political-­action committee. (Mad Dog sponsored a billboard in Kentucky that dubbed Mitch McConnell “PUTIN’S MITCH.”) Taylor admits to naked partisanship—Room Rater gushed over the “lovely” view of some unexceptional shrubbery visible through a window in Hillary Clinton’s study—but, regarding bookshelves, there is one hard-and-fast rule. “You’re going to get whacked on Room Rater if you put more than one of your own books cover forward,” he said. “A little self-promotion is fine, but don’t push it.”Welcome advice, since members of the TV-news workforce have been setting up their laptops with no apparent guidance from their bosses. “It’s been pretty ad hoc,” William Brangham, a correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour,” said. He lives in a tidy-looking house and has a knack for using baskets as decorative accents. A “NewsHour” executive asked him to send an image of what a living-room shot would look like: “The guy said, ‘Great,’ and that was pretty much it.” (Room Rater score: a coveted 10.) Richard Stengel, an MSNBC contributor who was an Under-Secretary of State for Barack Obama, said that he received no advice “other than a producer telling me to have my computer higher.” (Low angles lead to shots that are dominated by ceilings, nostrils, and saggy chins, as any Zoom-conference participant will attest.) Stengel’s main concerns: “What books are showing? Where’s the dog at?” (Room Rater score: 9.) Anne-­Marie Green, an anchor for “CBS Morning News” and CBSN, set up her home studio in a bland spare bedroom. The one eccentric note is a lamp she bought on Etsy, the base of which looks like a stack of teapots; if you wanted to be nice, you might say it has an “Alice in Wonderland” vibe. Green left it in her shot as “a little indication that I’m more than just a talking head.” (Room Rater, please weigh in here.)Brangham has experienced the highs and the lows of viewer intimacy. Two of his three cats, an orange tabby named Pepper and a tan-and-black tabby named Tiki, have become Internet celebrities, thanks to their appearances napping on the couch. His curtains are another story. A Times piece on “décor peeping” quoted an interior designer named Elaine Griffin berating them. Why, she asked, “does he have the $19.99 panels from Bed, Bath & Beyond? Grommet curtains are the drapery equivalent of a No. 1 with fries.” Brangham stood his ground, noting that grommet curtains are especially functional when quick lighting adjustments are needed on camera. “I didn’t design my home to be on air,” he added. “But then a pandemic happened.” ♦A Guide to the CoronavirusTwenty-four hours at the epicenter of the pandemic: nearly fifty *New Yorker* writers and photographers fanned out to document life in New York City on April 15th.Seattle leaders let scientists take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. New York leaders did not.Can survivors help cure the disease and rescue the economy?What the coronavirus has revealed about American medicine.Can we trace the spread of *COVID*{: .small}-19 and protect privacy at the same time?The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine is widely available.How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.The long crusade of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease expert pinned between Donald Trump and the American people.What to read, watch, cook, and listen to under quarantine.
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