A slight discrepancy has broken out between a conservative activist, the new media and a member of the old media quoted as a source for some in the new media: it’s only a matter of the whether the size of yesterday’s protest in Washington is being touted as having 940,000 more people then were actually there.
So ABC News has issued a strong statement trying to set the record straight and its likely some of the new media sites will clarify it as well. But here’s a bet: expect to hear a number way above ABC’s number on talk radio on Monday. Here’s the ABC statement:
Conservative activists, who organized a march on the U.S. Capitol today in protest of the Obama administration’s health care agenda and government spending, erroneously attributed reports on the size of the crowds to ABC News.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the group that organized the event, said on stage at the rally that ABC News was reporting that 1 million to 1.5 million people were in attendance.
At no time did ABC News, or its affiliates, report a number anywhere near as large. ABCNews.com reported an approximate figure of 60,000 to 70,000 protesters, attributed to the Washington, D.C., fire department. In its reports, ABC News Radio described the crowd as “tens of thousands.”
The ABC report goes on to say that FreedomWorks’ spokesman said he doesn’t know why Kibbe announced what he did and that some conservative bloggers have picked it up.
A few things on this:
1. As someone who worked in the news media for some time, I can attest — as anyone who has been a reporter or editor will — that crowd estimates are sometimes tricky. Many times news gatherers will listen to estimates from event organizers but also talk with police and other officials because sometimes event organizers have it in their interest to inflate the numbers. Or they unconsciously fall into wishful thinking. The best bet is often to go with the police estimate.
2.The problem in this case is that an estimate was erroneously attributed to ABC News — which means a number was therefore given legitimacy. And there is an irony in that, an irony that repeats itself frequently:
It’s always ironic when some folks who denounce the old media then tout or display information from it as solid, professionally reported, reliable information when they feel it can support their side. But in this case we don’t have the typical, daily syndrome in the new media where blogs on the right and left that often denounce the media cut and paste a large part of the old media’s work to use in their commentary or to bolster their opinion points.This is a case of flat out wrong information.
3. It’s likely that at least some talk radio hosts will either ignore the denial and will say that “some estimates” said it was 1 million. Or some will pluck a figure out of the air that really was not issued by any source that media types would go to for a crowd estimate. It’ll be an estimate reached in a radio studio, or by host who was at the rally. Kind of like throwing a dart at a dartboard.
Bottom line: anyone who has worked in the news media will attest to how judging crowd size is difficult. But in this case erroneous info was put out that was quickly put out…and cloned on the web, not by writers who KNEW it was wrong, but by writers who trusted a news source who got it wrong.
FOOTNOTE: I was traveling some of yesterday and I heard ABC News reports and CBS and talk about “tens of thousands.” This was on regular broadcast and while scanning satellite radio which carried CNN and other sources. Although I clearly didn’t hear or see every newscast, it was “tens of thousands” not a million and not “hundreds of thousands” on all of the ones I heard.
Be SURE TO GO HERE and check out memeorandum. You’ll see the posts about the million people — even the Daily Mail in Great Britain saying there were two million:
Up to two million people marched to the U.S. Capitol today, carrying signs with slogans such as “Obamacare makes me sick” as they protested the president’s health care plan and what they say is out-of-control spending.
The line of protesters spread across Pennsylvania Avenue for blocks, all the way to the capitol, according to the Washington Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
People were chanting “enough, enough” and “We the People.” Others yelled “You lie, you lie!” and “Pelosi has to go,” referring to California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.
That story gives no actual attribution on the figure used.
But here are some other media reports:
— The Wall Street Journal:
Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Capitol Hill Saturday, protesting the expansion of government spending and illustrating the network of conservative activists that has emerged in opposition to President Barack Obama’s policies.
…A spokesman for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services estimated the crowd at “in excess of 75,000” people. Local and federal law enforcement authorities don’t provide crowd estimates.
Tens of thousands of people marched from the shadow of the White House to the footsteps of the US Capitol today to protest against President Barack Obama and his “big government” policies.
Tens of thousands of people have taken part in a protest against Barack Obama’s plans to reform healthcare in the US.
Tens of thousands of protesters fed up with government spending marched to the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, showing their disdain for the president’s health care plan with slogans such as “Obamacare makes me sick” and “I’m not your ATM.”
Tens of thousands of people have marched from the White House to Capitol Hill in Washington to protest against Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms.
U.S. President Barack Obama continued to promote his national health-care plan on Saturday, promising to “get this right,” while tens of thousands of marchers denounced the proposal outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.
There are many more. But if you do a web search you will find that reports mirror what was said on land and broadcast radio yesterday: the rally attracted “tens of thousands.” Other figures are either erroneous or inflated for political reasons.
UPDATE: Nate Silver has a MUST READ on this issue (which is both a journalistic and a political one). Rather than quote it, read it in full.
He notes that Michelle Malkin quickly corrected her post. Before she blogged Malkin had worked as a columnist on newspapers — and my contention is that a story such as this works on two levels for those who have media background. She writes:
Thanks to ABC News for clearing this up.
The Left, of course, has seized on the error to discredit the undeniably massive turnout today.
If only they were as vigilant about policing other figures — e.g., the “47 million uninsured” statistic…
Read her post in full.
UPDATE II: Jules Crittenden has an extensive roundup that contains a lot of reaction from some conservative sites. He also offers his own commentary on this and while some TMV readers might not agree with him, he makes some interesting points about how politics and assumptions may influence perceptions, unconsciously or not.
NOTE TO READERS: I just noticed that Word Press published an earlier version of this before it had been edited and spell checked. This problem has arisen more than once. We regret the error and will try to be more vigilant.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.