for 25 July 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.

 

 

The Rich Man's Alta Vista

 
A year ago it was a highway, then it
was a web, and lately people throw
around references to Borges like so
many monkeys locked in a room. While
many are still grasping at metaphors
like drowning memes and the rest of
might want to make sense of the
information stew which sloshes
around our ankles, those whose desks
are kept afloat by the mire only
want to know how to get around in
it.
 
 
The problem of charting squalls and
islands in the media sea is about
the net but not of it - the video
clips, poll spins and laffbytes that
pollute our daily lives spill out of
too many sources to solve the
problem with a screensaver, or even
a well-placed bomb. And if probing
the epistemology of cataloging were
as simple as hacking together a
search engine, then we'd all be
trading in WWW.
 
 
As it stands, there are valid reasons
to go off-net, if not off-line, for
your info-processing needs: it makes
you look smart - or at least
professional, which is sometimes
what matters most anyways. The
Internet has bred more amateur
reporters and poseur pundits than
Ben Bradlee and Nightline combined,
and while I doubt that the clowns
from Spanq will be holding court on
Charlie Rose anytime soon, the
increasingly blurry boundary between
pulling a quote and pulling
something out of your ass makes
"real" reporters nervous. And with
its high price tag ($500 a month)
and inscrutable interface,
nothing says "I get paid to do this"
like a Nexis cite.
 
To be sure, the news database's
proponents have their detractors:
 
When uncovering the latest trend that
shows how lazy and sheep-like
journalists are, it's customary to
announce the results of a Nexis
search. [The Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette, February 11, 1995,
Speak softly, and carry a large
supply of chatter, John Allison] 
 
But these occasional snipes are
drowned out by the enthusiasm of
reporters such as Fortune's Daniel
Seligman, who launches and lauds the
service on an almost monthly basis.
To his credit, Seligman is an
early-adopter, and he defines his
goal in pulling out the Nexis big
gun with surgical precision: since
1984, he's been pulling on the
search string "mainly to demonstrate
the media's maddeningly liberal
bias." If only his aim were as
directed as his aims.
 
What started out as a planned
intervention - he investigated the
number of times Jeane Kirkpatrick
was called an ideologue - has
escalated quickly into information
carpet bombing, a show of firepower
which does little beyond prove the
aggressor's existence. In April, for
example, he discovered that "3,847
articles invoking 'self-esteem'...
had been added to the database just
since year-end." Seligman's fall
down the slippery slope from
meaningful research to factoid
trawling is illustrative of how most
journalists bobble their Boolean
terms.
 
Our asking for responsible media
criticism may be akin to
Anheuser-Busch's plea for drinking
sensibly, but surely more level
heads than ours also see the problem
in using raw Nexis numbers to prove
connections both ridiculously
obvious:
 
A search of the Nexis database
reveals more than 1000 newspaper,
magazine and wire-service stories
containing the words supermodels and
sex. [Playboy, December, 1994, Sex
stars 1994: Watch out Hollywood,
here come the supermodels, Gretchen
Edgren] 
 
and sublimely obscure:
 
A Nexis search turned up uncountable
thousands of "hits" on the word
"paradigm" - 791 in May 1996 alone.
[The Washington Post, June 21, 1996,
Paradigm Lost; Thomas Kuhn Shifted
the Ideas of Many a Wonk, James
Pinkerton]
 
Indeed, in the fulfillment of its
fact fetish, the working press has
recently reached a new sort of low -
zero, in fact:
 
A Nexis search of newspapers turned
up no mention of anything resembling
the supposed attack on the supposed
Mr. Davis. [The Chicago Sun-Times,
May 14, 1996, Online Romance Ends;
She Suspects Foul Ploy, Richard
Roeper]
 
As counterintuitive as it seems,
there is value in this negative
result. Citing a no-show as evidence
of nonexistence means that the
database has been elevated to
something more than even national
memory - it's national history. But
if not turning up in a search means
you don't exist, does progressive
attrition mean that you're
disappearing?
 
But a quick Nexis search of major
papers and magazines reveals one
fewer "Nexis search" reference last
year than in the year before, 31
versus 32. And there was a more
pronounced drop in the use of just
the word "Nexis," 594 in 1994 and
564 in 1995. [The New York Times,
February 4, 1996] 
 
 
Or it might just mean you're losing
value - by this fall, Lexis-Nexis will
be searchable from the web.
 

[Zero Baud Archive]

courtesy of
Ann O'Tate