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300 Million! Well, Roughly.

(CBS/AP)
Here's a list of people who have been famous for no good reason: Vanna White, Paris Hilton, the "Survivor" castaways, Robert Woo.

Don't recognize that last one? You must not be paying attention to the news this week. Woo, an Atlanta lawyer born in 1967, was the 200 millionth American – at least according to Life magazine, which somewhat haphazardly gave him the honor. Now that we're hitting 300 million, more or less, Woo has been all over the place, including appearances on CBS' "Evening News" and "Sunday Morning."

When it anointed Woo, Life didn't have any way of knowing if he was really number 200 million. As this Slate "Explainer" points out, calculating population milestones is guesswork. But Life magazine's editor wanted a baby who "would symbolize this point in the nation's growth." Media outlets always want to put a human face on statistical milestones, and Woo served that purpose.

This time around, we're seeing a bit more restraint. The CBSNews.com story spends its opening few paragraphs stressing that we really have no idea which baby might be lucky number 300 million, and points out that "[m]any experts think the population actually hit 300 million months ago." Baby food manufacturer Gerber Products Co. wanted to anoint number 300 million, but the Census Bureau, citing the impossibility of accuracy, declined to provide a name. Most guesses have been general: Demographer William Frey said it will be "a Latino baby boy born in Los Angeles to a Mexican-Immigrant mother," while demographer Mark Mather said it was equally likely to be born to a white woman in the Midwestern suburbs.

And then there's the estimated 40 percent chance that the 300 millionth will be an immigrant "either arriving legally at an airport or illegally crossing the Arizona desert." The trend this year in the media seems to be not to find one American who serves as a symbol of the nation's growth but to use the occasion to examine the changing demographics of the country and their political implications. Not that everyone wants to. In contrast to 1967, when Lyndon Johnson stood in front of the census clock to mark 200 million, there is "little public fanfare" this time around. "There is no way that you can talk about our arrival at 300 million without pointing to the fact that immigration is such a heavy component of the annual growth," Jacob Siegel, a retired Census statistician, told USA Today. "There's no political advantage in getting in this hot issue."

Woo, for one, seems to prefer the less accurate – but perhaps more hopeful – approach that made him accidentally famous. He wants the media to identify the 300 millionth American. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I just think it would be neat." At the moment, it looks like he's not going to be getting his wish.

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