Gun nut Michael Bane posted an amusing story on his blog that demonstrates the truth of the phrase "too good to check," from his experience as a freelance journalist. In this case, he'd finished an article on survivalism, but found himself in a sticky spot:
Before the article is published, though, I get a call from the editor, who has a simple question — what is the dollar size of the survivalist market? A $50,000,000 a year market? A hundred? I spent several days looking and come back empty-handed. Nobody has researched the relatively new market enough to have put estimates to it.
"Take a guess," the editor said.
What the hell...I pick a number. It's a pretty good number, too, in that it's a best guess. But it is a guess. Nothing more.
"Cool," he said, and the story comes out with my number right there up front.
My number then goes on without me. I'm sent an article from one of the largest newspaper on the West Coast, quoting my number and attributing it to "sources." Next, my number migrates across country to the Great Grey New York Times, where it is attributed to "knowledgeable sources close to the industry." Then my number makes the jump to television, where a famous soon-to-be-retired anchor person mouthed it as "authoritative." It crawled into more magazine aritcles and even a couple of books and finally broke into Hollywood. I'm watching an episode of the old Lou Grant television show, where everyone's favorite loveable lefty Ed Asner plays everyone's favorite loveable lefty editor Lou Grant.
"Do you know how much money these whackos spend every year?" shouts loveable Lou, more or less. "They spend..."
And there it is. MY number, right there on television! I am so proud for it! I feel like a father who has given birth to...Brad Pitt! I envision it walking (maybe migrating, whatever it is that numbers do) down the Red Carpet, accepting the award for Best New Monetary Estimate of a Niche Right-Wing Market, partying at Spaagos with whomever was the Johnny Depp of the time — David Hasselhoff? I imagine my number thanking me for making it up and sending it out into the world.
But it was never more than a guess made by a guy on deadline.