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Pitying the people you cover is the first step on a journey into Hell in this line of work. Lately, though, it’s been difficult not to feel pangs of sympathy for those poor souls whose job it is to spray perfume upon declining network ratings.

“Accentuate the positive” is of course the mantra in this endeavor, but when the positive evaporates as quickly as it has this season — well, let’s just say the creativity displayed in spinning these numbers frequently surpasses anything offered by the shows in question. The only more daunting number-crunching task these days might be that of Republican pollster.

As a consequence, in ratings press releases series “leap,” “surge,” “trounce” and “dominate” by percentages that look convincing only if you ignore that they are starting from such a low base, winning by margins that in election polls could be dismissed as statistically insignificant.

For starters, there are plenty of glowing references to second-place finishes at 10 p.m. Given that there are three major networks programming that hour, in this case two out of three really ain’t all that good.

ABC, for example, bragged that “Eli Stone” finished second among adults 18-34, enjoying a double-digit lead over “Without a Trace.” This sounds reasonably impressive, until you notice that “Eli’s” puny 1.6 rating by that measure edged “Trace’s” slightly punier 1.4 by — ta-da! –14%. Poor “Eli” was third, alas, among the more commonly used adults 18-49 standard.

NBC sprinkled its own PR pixie dust on “My Own Worst Enemy,” whose 64% ratings hold off its “Heroes” lead-in represented “the third-biggest retention ever for NBC following an original ‘Heroes.'”

Nice try — except that the “Heroes” audience has plummeted this season, and those lower retention rates off a much higher plateau were delivered by two series NBC canceled, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “Journeyman.”

Not satisfied to savor a rare victory by any yardstick, CW gushed that “America’s Next Top Model” “dominated” its hour among female demographics. Actually, said domination included a 3.1 rating among women 18-49 versus CBS’ 3.0. That’s kind of like saying Bush “dominated” Gore in Florida.

Thanks to staff turnover at many newspapers, meanwhile, it’s become easier for such dubious claims to bedazzle less experienced reporters — leaving seasoned pros to knife through the malarkey, even if that means sounding as cranky as most of us are.

When Fox launched “Fringe,” a surprising number of papers gullibly accepted its assertion that the tepid premiere opened strongly. Not so with Washington Post columnist Lisa de Moraes, bless her, who observed that the sci-fi yarn Fox billed as “the network’s most-watched drama premiere in two years” only qualified as such “if you exclude most of its drama premieres of the past two years,” including everything that followed sports or “American Idol.” Small problem: The network’s disclaimer cleverly eliminated all but three of the dramas Fox rolled out during that span.

Frankly, if the entire D.C. press corps stayed equally vigilant about fact checking, the country would be in much better shape.

Cable channels whose ratings are small to begin with are especially well-practiced at outrageous spin-meistering. Take Bravo, which unabashedly described “The Real Housewives of New York City” as a “water-cooler sensation.”

Inasmuch as Nielsen data indicates that “Housewives” attracted roughly 1 million viewers out of a potential domestic aud of 290 million, let’s conduct an experiment: Immediately go to your nearest water-cooler — even in Manhattan — and try finding two people who admit they watch the show.

Yet as they say in infomercials, that’s not all! Once initial ratings are exhausted, modern technology has provided networks whole new categories to trumpet — including individual commercial ratings, delayed DVR numbers, exploding web traffic (Oxygen.com up 668%!), and even median viewing age. (Fourth-place NBC crows that its median of 45.6 years is younger than ABC and hoary old CBS. So there.)

Peruse enough of this puffery and it’s enough to drive you mildly crazy — plus or minus 5%. As for the beleaguered research folks, they risk becoming the boys who cried “hit” — blowing smoke so hard that when a real, bona fide success emerges, we might be too blinded to see it.