DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ
Part I: How Life-style Journalism Works
In the course of a 73.5-year lifetime, the average American will spend:
These factoids, from a press release sent out by the Pittsburgh consulting firm of Fortino & Associates, have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today (twice), Business Week, Psychology Today, Premiere, the Chicago Tribune, Self, the Chicago SunTimes, the Harper's Index and George Will's syndicated column, and on NBC, CBS and ABC News, The Tonight Show, The Today Show and Good Morning America. The item has been reprinted wherever column space is filled with neat little stories about the wacky world we live in -- which is to say, just about everywhere.
Larry Speakes once said, "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." So this story must be really true -- after all, it passed unscathed through the fact-checking procedures of so many reputable news organizations. Surely so many writers and editors couldn't have reported information that was the result of someone's having hit the wrong button on his calculator.
After a grueling four minutes with our own calculator, we broke the alleged "lifetime" statistics down into their daily quotas. According to Fortino's data, we learned, the average American spends, every day,
was news. Has anyone outside of
Don't forget, these are supposed to be average figures. So if you think you're spending only 30 minutes a day in the bathroom, then someone else must be spending 3 or 4 hours in there.
Part II: Talking to the Factoid Factory
if we were the only people in the
"Wait a minute," he said, apparently without. irony. "Do you have industrial analysts going out and taking data that contradicts ours?"
We reassured him that we were acting on our own, that it just seemed like most people we knew spent about 30 seconds daily slipping unopened junk mail into the garbage. "You may not open junk mail, but other people do," he replied. His statistics, he went on to explain, are based on phone polls, on the use of Nielsen-type families who agree to record their actions in a diary, and on "time-and-motion studies" wherein analysts put a stopwatch on regular, oblivious citizens in public places.
We asked how he'd arrived at the assertion that Americans spend 20 minutes daily searching for misplaced objects. 'Just think of how much time you spend looking for a can opener, for example," he said cheerfully. But, we asked, don't most people keep their can opener in a kitchen drawer, as we do? "But that time you spend fiddling around in the drawer looking for it is wasted time. . . . It's misplaced within the drawer. Those are the sort of minute measurements we had to do in our time-and-motion studies."
And what sort of measurements were behind the 2 hours and 20 minutes in the bathroom? "A lot of people just think of defecation," he said. "You've got to brush your teeth, floss, do your hair and wash up. You probably shower," he added, "but many other people take baths."
We wondered if there was good money to be made in this kind of consulting. "Our speeches book out at about $5,000 for a one-hour talk," he said. "But I'm not in this for the money or the publicity. . . . I'm trying to make people aware of a concept called Life-style Management. I want to make it a concept for the nineties. . . . I hope to enable Americans to spend their time more constructively, leading more meaningful lives. . . .I'm writing a book about it. It's going to be full of these time-and-motion figures. And listen, I'd like to submit them to you before anybody else, because Spy has been very good to me."