Empty Verbiage Alert

I just read the following headline from Reuters — one of the world’s largest and most widely-read news agencies — related to the Hollywood gossip story of an actor’s accidental shooting of a cinematographer on a movie set: “Gun not thoroughly checked before Alec Baldwin fired fatal shot.”

Really? It wasn’t thoroughly checked. Well, who could have guessed? I mean, prior to this revelation from Reuters, everyone was assuming, of course, that the gun had been thoroughly checked, that it had been found during that thorough check to be a loaded real gun, and that Alec Baldwin had then gone ahead and shot someone with it anyway. But now, thanks to Reuters’ intrepid investigative journalism, as announced in that startling headline, we have learned, much to the world’s shock, that the gun with which an actor accidentally shot and killed a cinematographer was not known to be a real and loaded weapon at the time the shooting occurred, because, lo and behold, it was “not thoroughly checked.”

Does language still have any meaning in our late modern decay, other than as just one more form of mindless noise with which to fill our heads incessantly, presumably to prevent us from ever having five quiet seconds in which to think?

More than a generation ago, John Madden, who was the era’s most famous color commentator on National Football League broadcasts, offered a memorable observation on his principles of television analysis — memorable, at least, to a nascent lover of language and silence (in equal measure) living in Ottawa in those days. Asked to explain why his commentary was so popular compared to that of his peers, Madden noted that he never talked down to the audience, and most importantly, he never said the self-evident merely to fill the space, as most sports broadcasters are tiresomely inclined to do. As an example of such empty verbiage, Madden said that when a quarterback had a pass intercepted, he would never say something like, “He wishes he had that one back!” 

Well, of course he wishes he had that one back. By definition, we all wish we had not committed an error — that’s why we call them errors. So, Madden implied, why waste your breath and the audience’s attention saying something so pointless? The answer, of course, is that most broadcasters say such things — in fact, such things have become the core of all broadcasting, podcasting, and everything-else-casting today — because they think it is necessary to talk, continuously, even when, as is almost always the case, they have absolutely nothing of value to say.

Madden’s principle, and his example, are not merely informative, but also instructive and, potentially, remedial. By actively training oneself out of the modern chatter instinct for “filling the empty spaces” by any means necessary, one simultaneously forces oneself to find more meaningful and beneficial things to say, or else to refrain from speaking at all — a mental discipline that, if taught and pursued on a general societal basis, would probably do more to repair our age’s shattered and mind-numbing discourse than any other single change.

The typical and almost ubiquitous formulaic headline from today’s news media: “Alec Baldwin wishes he had that one back.” The principle behind such “news,” the reversal of the Madden principle: If you keep up the noise that substitutes for thinking, eventually no one will remember how to think — which, from the perspective of power, is the ideal social condition.

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