The news agency Reuters posted a story the day after the inauguration claiming:
“President Barack Obama’s inauguration generated an unprecedented 35,000 stories in the world’s major newspapers, television and radio broadcasts over the past day — about 35 times more than the last presidential swearing-in — a monitoring group said on Wednesday.”

Bloggers seem to like this story — I’ve run into it several times — but they also seem to be accepting it as legit, though the idea that the second inauguration of President Bush garnered a mere 1,000 stories is implausible on its face. Fewer than Obama? Sure, I believe that. But by a factor of 35? Not likely.

So who was Reuters relying on for what we journalists call a one-source story? Why, it was Paul JJ Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.

He’s got form as a purveyor of dubious linguistic self-promotions. The guys at Language Log nailed him good for a series of predictions about the millionth word in English. Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

Gullible reporters keep falling for a self-aggrandizing scam perpetrated by Paul J.J. Payack, who runs an outfit called Global Language Monitor. As regular Language Log readers know, Mr. Payack has been trumpeting the arrival of “the millionth word” in English for some time now. In fact, he’s predicted that the English language would pass the million-word mark in 2006… and 2007… and 2008… and now 2009. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor and The Economist, the date that Payack has now set for the million-word milestone is April 29, 2009.

In a previous installment of the Payack saga, I wrote that the Million Word March was “a progression that he turns on and off based on his publicity needs.” So I can’t say I was terribly surprised to learn that April 29, 2009 just happens to be the publication date of the paperback edition of Payack’s book, A Million Words and Counting: How Global English Is Rewriting The World. What a stupendous coincidence that Global Language Monitor’s word-counting algorithm has timed itself to accord with Payack’s publishing schedule!

Payack calls Obama “the biggest story of the century so far,” and Reuters quotes him further:

Payack said that according to his group’s monitoring, the Obama campaign and election story had generated 717,000 citations in print, television and radio across the world in 2008 and 254 million mentions on the Internet and in Web blogs.

That surpassed media interest generated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the global financial meltdown in 2008, the Iraq War in 2003 and the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Payack said.

The tallies were calculated using the group’s proprietary algorithm which tracks the frequency of words and phrases in the global print and electronic media, the Internet and major databases.

People with editors are not supposed to fall for silly press releases.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
This entry was posted in Journalism and media, Linguistics. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Pay(b)ack

  1. Actually reputable media do employ editors and fact checkers before they print ‘silly press releases’ In fact, the Reuters story was not based on a press release but on original research (which we may actually release at some point).

    In fact, the global media do check with any number of readily accessible sources to conclude that these numbers are quite accurate. There are all sorts of data bases to which you can subscribe where you, yourself, can check the facts.

    The New York Times article, The Bubble: The Power of Words 1/19/06, that used our PQI to first presage the real-estate melt-down back, took over a month going back-and-forth with the numbers and calculations. (It was also the first public mention of the Million Word count, which they happened to mention in passing.)

    As for our prediction that a 1500-year old language would pass the one million word mark sometime in the last half of the first decade of the 21st C., the 48-month period in question is a difference of 0.0027.

    My book, a Million Words and Counting, was written 3 years ago, published last year, and the paperback edition comes out sometime in May. Check the facts.

    As always, you (or anyone else) can contact me through the site by phone or email.

    Thanx for the listen!


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