Mojave? Isn’t that somewhere in Africa?

A visitor to the newspaper office recently expressed amazement at the amount of information routinely processed through the newsroom each day.

“Gol,” she exclaimed, “How do you research all that stuff to make sure it’s right?”

Well, I explained with a condescending smile, we’re backed up by the Associated Press, the Internet, state-of-the-art search engines, a no-nonsense, university-educated research director and a 300-volume reference library.

I had to admit, however, that for the most part we seasoned journalists rely on the warm body research system to confirm any hard-to-verify information.

This technique consists of turning to the nearest warm body and asking something like “Was Newfoundland our ally in the Spanish-American War?”

This is a particularly efficient technique since just about anybody with a pulse is qualified to answer – another reporter, a passing photographer or a Slovenian tennis pro looking for the restroom.

Note that I used the word “efficient” and not “accurate.”

Although the warm body research protocol is quick and easy to use, it can lead one astray on occasion.

For example, a trusting colleague turned to me not long ago and asked, “What’s that desert around Las Vegas called?”

“That’s the Mojave,” I answered promptly, vaguely recalling a conversation I thought I’d overheard about the subject.

“Mojave? Are you sure? I thought that was in Africa or Arizona or something…” he queried.

“Naaaa, ‘Mojave’ actually means ‘Big casino place’ in the Paiute language, while ‘Las Vegas’ is an old Spanish term for ‘surrounded by desolate wasteland with casinos in the middle.’ Really. I think somebody wrote a book about it,” I explained patiently.

As luck would have it, the poor slob opted to end his research there and wrote that Las Vegas was sweltering in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Our boss, however, wanted a little more documentation before altering the geography of Nevada in a newspaper story.

“Are you absolutely sure that Las Vegas is in the Mojave Desert?” she asked impatiently, drumming four razor-sharp fingernails on her pitted desktop.

“Well, yeah. That’s what he said,” my colleague replied, deferring to my geographic expertise.

“Of course it is,” I stated. “In fact, I distinctly remember watching the movie ‘Bugsy’ and there’s this part where the third banana gangster tells the guy playing Bugsy Siegel that nobody’s going to want to drive all the way out in the Mojave Desert to gamble in Las Vegas…”

Curiously enough, my explanation fell somewhat short of my colleagues’ expectations.

“That’s it? A gangster movie?!” asked the boss, her left eye twitching rapidly.

Despite my protestations that “Bugsy” was a serious piece of cinema, the whole process fell apart right there and the research director was summoned. All of which goes to show just how seriously we take our fact-finding here at the newspaper.

And which also goes to show that, er, Las Vegas is most emphatically not located within the Mojave Desert.

At least I don’t think so…

Originally published August 5, 2001