Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My least favorite bit of journalistic laziness

I have a sense that the technology of the day gives rise to certain instances of public laziness, and I cannot help but feel as though I have a sacred duty to correct this. Or, more accurately, to write things describing how much hatred I feel in my heart for their usage. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was routine for people--usually my peers, at occasions like high school graduations--to begin their speeches with the cliched saying, "Webster's defines ______ as..." That ______ was usually something like "success" or "graduation" or whatever. It was annoying, trite, and everything else.

However, now that we've entered a day and age in which we can comfortably leave things like dictionaries and encyclopedias behind on the dust-covered bookshelves of bygone era, we have to confront glaring new instances of cliches working themselves like boring beetles into the prose of journalists.

My least favorite example of this is when writers cite the number of Google hits a give phrase returns as an example of the cache that term holds in the public consciousness. Even though I usually enjoy his writing, Slate.com's Tim Noah is today's exemplar of this annoying tendency. In an article on the credulity of CNN's Larrry King, he writes,

Then again, this is the same Larry King who regularly plays host on Larry King Live to psychics, mediums, and UFO enthusiasts; who peppered his former USA Today column with insights like "The revamped Beverly Hills Hotel is just beautiful" and "Aren't those Save the Children ties the prettiest around?"; and who, when his name is paired on Google with the word credulous, yields 73,800 hits.
Ok, a few things. First of all, that's factually wrong. I googled "Larry King credulous," and came back with 10,700 hits.

Second of all--and, yes, I know I'm taking what is essentially a throw away comment by Noah and writing way too much about it...but isn't that the entire point of blogging?--that's not how Google searches work. All searching for a combination of words does (unless you put the entire phrase in quotation marks, which is not what Noah did) is find any page on which all those words occurs. If I write something like the following sentence, "Larry King's show on CNN is one of the best I've ever seen, and nobody, from my lovely wife to my credulous, moronic neighbor, believes otherwise," it will show up (perhaps as soon as this afternoon) in a Google search for "Larry King credulous."

Here's an example of how much utility you can really get from using Google as a sounding board for the cultural zeitgeist. If I google my name and the phrase "dating Mandy Moore," I wind up with 69,300 hits. ("Dating Beyoncé Knowles" yields only 16,300 hits--sorry, Beyoncé!) Holy cow! If I google my name and the phrase "impregnated Salma Hayek," I get 10,800 hits. Yow! If I google my name and "hit 714 home runs," I get over 250,000 hits. And, since I clearly am not dating Mandy Moore, have not impregnated Salma Hayek, and am not Babe Ruth, there are clearly limits to this business of calculating our culture's fevered intensity for information (although clearly many people are interested in the identity of people who have impregnated Salma Hayek) by arriving at the number of Google hits for whatever particular phrase floats your boat.

Next up, a fascinating rant in which I express my disgust for people who write/say "jive" when they mean "jibe." Fun!