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The Perils of Crowd Estimates

First let's do the numbers: I don't know how many people were on hand Saturday for the anti-government protest. A lot. There were easily enough to fill a football stadium, seemed to me. But there was a distorting effect from the big empty space in the middle of the crowd (the reflecting pool). One number that's been bandied about is 70,000, supposedly from the D.C. fire department. That jiibes with what I saw, but I'd like to know who exactly at the department came up with that (The Post didn't hear any such official estimate) and based on what technique (because if it's a wild guess, we should mention that -- otherwise it's just the Argument from Authority).

Some people (including one of the organizers at one point) contended that there were a million protesters, which is nonsense. Another number that got a ton of play, thanks to Michelle Malkin, is 2 million, a ludicrous figure on its face. Nearly that many showed up for the Obama inauguration and the crowd on the mall stretched practically to West Virginia. [I walked the length of the inauguration crowd and vividly remember thinking I'd finally gotten to the end of it when I came across what looked like yet another football-stadium-size crowd crawling down 18th street toward the Mall. There was no end to it.] Saturday's protest was a wee fraction of the inauguration crowd.

There's been some silliness among bloggers about whether the story deserved to be on the front page. It's a no-brainer at this moment in this climate with a crowd of that size. You decide for yourself: Does underplaying an anti-war protest in 2002 mean that a march on DC in 2009 must be relegated to the Metro section? You sure 'bout that?

Media Matters approvingly noted that the New York Times didn't put the march on the front page, while The Post did. But, um, the march happened in Washington, not New York. Location matters. Seems to me both papers played it just right.

[More to come...]

By Joel Achenbach  |  September 14, 2009; 7:42 AM ET
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Next: Government, Pro and Con


Hello? Hello? Can you hear me now? Is anyone there? Boodle? Wherefor art thou, Boodle? Looks like I better go get 'em. Keep the coffee warm, Joel. Be right back.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

As I mentioned last night, there is something shrewdly Machiavellian about repeating suspect information. Yes, technically, all one is doing is reporting, truthfully, what another individual has said. But come on. This "That's what I heard" defense is best left on the playground.

One of my observations on life is that what can be believed will be believed. Any hint of ambiguity will be interpreted by someone in a way that supports that person's preconceptions. This is human nature.

But when popular bloggers, who are supposed to represent some kind of new-media nirvana of people's journalism, shamelessly repeat these absurdities simply to advance their worldview, well, those hoary old bastions of quaintly unbiased reporting start to seem pretty gosh-darned valuable.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | September 14, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Has anybody called Chief Rubin to see how the fire department's figure was arrived at? That would be my first move, if I were asking...

Posted by: slyness | September 14, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

The "media matters" take-down of the conservative bloggers was pretty brutal:

But, in fairness, I'm not sure if this is a weakness in the conservative mindset as much as the lack of a strong professional ethos among bloggers.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | September 14, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

"If it bleeds, it leads" used to be a standard for some press to follow. Maybe since this was a non violent event NYT put it elsewhere. What exactly was the front page news for the NYT that day?

Joel is correct that this event should be front page for the WaPo as the event was here. Seems to me to be a reach to have to pull something out from 2002 for comparison's sake.

Until about 10 years ago, I looked at the Washington Times occasionally.... then I grew up.....

Posted by: VintageLady | September 14, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

I think Joe Wilson and Kanye West should both apologize, but only to each other, until they each get so sick of each other they know what the rest of us are going through.

(Did that make sense and come out right? You may have to interpret liberally what I was tryin' to do there.)

In the interests of polite discourse, I have decided to replace the word that rhymes with gaspole with the word "dillweed" (I apologize in advance to any pickles who may be offended). I preface this because I am so sick of dillweeds popping up all over the place. West, Wilson, Malkin, Beck, the list goes on and on. Just all of you dillweeds, please just Shut. The. [Have carnal knowledge of.] Up.

There, I feel a little better now.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Did someone say tumbleweeds? I came here looking for a date.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Urgent Boodle Alert: Cassandra, please report in. The Office of the Shop Steward is Officially Worried.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I'm not that kind of girl, weed.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Missing some fruit @ breakfast, Weed?

Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I am not impressed with a crowd that isn't even big enough to elect a governor of Alaska, if they all voted. BTW, if the numbers from the officials as sited by Joel are true, when considering that they had sponsorship from every wing nut organization plus the rabid support of FOX news, 80K is pretty pathetic.

Just getting all of the Republican Congresspeople (I could almost have used Congressmen, but I would insult the likes of Bachmann and Fox, amongst a few others), the talking heads on FOX and all twelve folks that get the Washington Times, you would reach nearly 1,000.

I think that the demonstration was a missed opportunity for Medicare to set up a couple of information stands so that, while the demonstrators were screaming about getting the government out of their lives, Medicare could provide information to those demonstrators about their coverage.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

I suspect that trying to provide true, rational, and useful information to that crowd is a mug's game, Weed. A phrase concerning trying to expell bladder fluid over the windward rail comes to mind.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Love it Snuke and Mudge! Speaking of berries, had a special dinner last night w/ friend who was, at one time, highest ranking female officer on a very big boat in HSTCSG.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Weed had dinner with Lauren Tewes?? *impressed*

Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Thistle, I think it would have been a waste of taxpayers money to set up anything about medicare to the screaming meanies and those who were sincere (there were some of those, surely) in their demo. They really didn't want information, just wanted their day in the sun to blow off steam. Personally, I have believed all along, beginning with the rude people at the townhall meetings and again on Saturday, that some of these people are professional protestors, a little side occupation, like the kids we see on Saturday standing out with the realestate for sale signs.

Posted by: VintageLady | September 14, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

'mudge is verbally graphic, very graphic...

Posted by: VintageLady | September 14, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

No, more attractive,,, but she certainly knows how to deal with men. I guess she has had some practice. It is funny to spend time who can't go anywhere without a "Tide Stick." In the old days, my friends never went anywhere without their Thai Stick.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Saturday night after the U2 concert everybody started heading out from Soldier Field. The stadium is lined with wrought iron fences to keep people off the highway. At the north end of the grounds where the cars were leaving the garages, the crowds got so densely packed that people started climbing and jumping over the 8 foot tall fences.

I guess the attendance was about 80,000 people and the crowd I was in was packed like sardines. It took my wife and I over almost two hours to go the mile and a half back to our hotel. Most of that was just trying to get to Roosevelt Road.

All-in-all, if I had to be in a crowd of 80,000 people, I'd prefer to be seeing U2 than be stuck with a bunch of teabaggers.

Posted by: yellojkt | September 14, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Crowd size estimates have been a problem for a while:

etc., etc.

Posted by: TexLex | September 14, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

VL! I think I was joking (I often am not successful in my jokes or they are a bit dry). Anyway, the info stands could have had a big banner: "MEDICARE - Successfully standing between you and your doctor for 44 years."

I think that crowd should have been given to "opt out" from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, if they so chose.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Unable to parse HSTCSG, Weed. Hungarian Small Training Class Ship--General?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Harry S Truman Container Ship Gundalow?

High-Speed Target Craft/Sightseeing Group?

Hermaneutic Star Trek Clone Simulating Galaxy?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

If I were the fire chief taking that call on how I made that estimate, I'd want to say one word.


Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | September 14, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Humongous Super-Terrific Contiguous Ship Group?

Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Historic Sailor's Trailer Cuddler: Skiboat G-3?

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | September 14, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse


I propose this as one of the Boodle's theme songs:

(office safe... as long as you can chuckle)

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Dear Howie Kurtz;

A talking head got upset that a White House functionary might have something to do with people calling the talking head a bad name and suggesting people no longer pay the talking head. The WH functionary resigns from a position with next to zero responsibility because the talking head points out the functionary's previous stupid statements.

Let the damn thing go already, sheesh...

Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Can't play it at work, Weed. The *&^%$# filter is now blocking streaming stuff. Grrrrrrrr.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

'morning all. The number of protesters may be estimated by a sampling method. Let say if one throws a 10 sq. meter net and catches an average of 2.4 teabaggers per throw and the surface of the Mall used for teabagging is known to be 30 hectares than the crowd may be estimated at about 72 000.
It could be done by digital image analysis but catching the wingnuts with a net would be a lot more fun.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | September 14, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse


A bonus for the ladies ... a huge hit done right.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Would we then release the catch into the reflecting pool, Shriek?

Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Either that Scotty or we haul their *equines of small stature* to Gitmo.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | September 14, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

There was, like, a kajillion people there. Dude.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | September 14, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Thinking about sign-wavers on the sidewalk brings to mind a post I saw recently on Best of Craigslist. You never know what your protesting might do...


Planned Parenthood protestors - w4m
Date: 2009-07-12, 1:48AM CDT

I was having trouble finding the clinic Saturday morning, but then I saw you guys waving your signs around, and I knew exactly which exit to take.

I made it to my abortion with five minutes to spare. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: -TBG- | September 14, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

There was an 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' episode where the guys were going to abortion clinic protests to pick up protesters and counter-protesters. It seems some of the protesters were rather sexually repressed but not so keen on the practicing safe sex. Hilarity ensued.

Posted by: yellojkt | September 14, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Yello, some of the most fervent anti-abortion folks are also pretty much anti-contraception, as I'm sure you know.

I just wrote and deleted two comments filled with a lot of family anecdotes about attitudes towards birth control and abortion.

It's amazing - I've found something too personal to post about on the Achenblog!

Posted by: Wheezy11 | September 14, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

That happens, Wheezy. Don't worry about it.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | September 14, 2009 11:46 AM | Report abuse

When I was in flight school (early '80s) all of my unmarried male classmates knew where the local chapters of Parents Without Partners met.

Posted by: frostbitten1 | September 14, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I wasn't trying to lead the conversation anywhere, Wheezy. I'm sorry... I know it's a touchy subject. I deserve a Boodle Lashing.

It's just that I thought it was funny to point out that sometimes one's efforts can produce the opposite effect intended. Especially if they're so predictable.

Posted by: -TBG- | September 14, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

There was a very cute redhead in one of my engineering classes. One morning I was standing in line outside the Fox Theater to try to get Dire Straits tickets (I failed).

This girl was walking back from an abortion clinic protest. I immediately scratched her off my list of potential fall-back possibilities.

Posted by: yellojkt | September 14, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the interruption but I have a question for the boodle, this spring I planted a lovely lavender rhodo for some friends, put it right near their front door where it will be noticed.

Saturday night as I was going up to their front door I noticed a bloom on their plant. The plant had already been in full bloom in the spring, is it normal for them to have the odd late bloom (there were two blooms in fact). Had not seen this before and a quick google check has not pulled up any information.

Posted by: dmd3 | September 14, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

And how 'bout those Red Sox?????


Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

There used to be free clinics where youngsters could go for free birth control or at least obtaining prescriptions, the checkup, was free. Is that even done anymore?

Posted by: Jumper1 | September 14, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Have we so run out of conversation that we need to discuss mundane items of clothing?

Oh, wait...

Sorry, Scotty. Carry on.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | September 14, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Lots of fat little bellies in that parade, hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm indeed. They're gonna need some health insurance pretty soon.

No problem, Thistle. I enjoy wry humor.

Posted by: VintageLady | September 14, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

He's spinning that so fast, he looks like a tornado, doesn't he?

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | September 14, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

My friend reports to me she had dinner with Iggy Pop yesterday. Frenvious, I am. Somewhere in France.

My Amazon order all arrived today from 3 different points. Short story collections by Bruce Sterling (Visionary in Residence) and Gene Wolfe ('88's Storeys from the Old Hotel) Also got Neal Stephenson's Anathem (score!) and the what I hope is trans-genre enough to satisfy my critics for reading too much science fiction, 2003's The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

Posted by: Jumper1 | September 14, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Regarding crowd estimation: seems to me that it would be a fairly easy task for software with an overhead photograph. No fair counting the news organizations that are nominally or actually covering the event, not even if they are promoters of the cause (e.g., Fox, Washington Times), nor should one count the cops. Counter-protesters must also be considered inapplicable. The grossly obese must not count twice. Not sure what to do about Ann Coulter: she's not all there, so should she count for less than 1? From directly overhead, she may be nigh invisible.

Posted by: ScienceTim | September 14, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Photoshopping Nasa pix.

Posted by: Jumper1 | September 14, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

New Kit and Front Page Alert!

Posted by: Scottynuke | September 14, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of overoptimistic estimates-

Jumper, I'd love to read 'Anathem' soon, but I'm too tied up with Mr. Wright's 'God' book and a couple of titles that Scottynuke lent me to risk perching anything else on top of the prexisting stacks. My nightstand looks like a scale model of downtown Tokyo (I should have a scale model bus to pick up and throw back down, shouldn't I?).

Of the many ways I may exit this mortal coil, I think one of the most likely would be knocking over the nightstand stacks when I try to hit the 5:30 AM snooze button, and I'm crushed under the weight of all that I have not read, and all that I have not done.

"Man dies, crushed by regrets; unread literature."

I'm sure someone can do better than that.


Posted by: -bc- | September 14, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Just looked at the MLB styandings. The Natinals haven't been doing very well, have they. They are heading for a 100 loss season with their 50-93, that's really bad.
The Spos did worse only twice, their inaugural year 1969 and the awful season of 1976 under Karl Kuehl. I was a fan back in 1976, they inhaled terribly that summer. Good things the Olympics kept them off the news somewhat.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | September 14, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Lady, you hit the nail on the head.

Posted by: russianthistle | September 14, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

A friend has gotten caught up in some book about the lost years of Jesus. In the midst of listening to all this, my mind wandered to the concept that there was at some point in history before which it was possible to read every book (scroll?) that had been written, and after that point it became impossible. Of course that dissolves under scrutiny. (What is a "book"? Did every tally scratched on stone by a Babylonian market vendor qualify as "book"?) But the odd thought crossed my mind: "maybe Jesus was the last guy who read EVERY BOOK." Of course, I couldn't get a word in edgewise.

Dying (instantly, one hopes) under a pile of anticipated reading is not the worst way to go...

Posted by: Jumper1 | September 14, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

However, having the book thrown at you isn't much fun either, Jumper.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | September 14, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Hope I'm not being too tacky regarding this horrible murder at Yale (which I only just heard about here) but mention of the Yale Daily News reminded me of a story once in that paper about GW Bush.

The fraternity he ran, DKE, had just been fined by the university council for hazing that included "physically and mentally degrading acts," including branding people with red-hot coat hangers. There was a picture with the article showing a red D burned into a student's skin.

Bush was unbowed, calling the university "haughty". The story got into the national news, and Bush gave an interview to the NY Times. He defended the bradings, saying they were "no worse than cigarette burns".

Posted by: Bud0 | September 14, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

And this didn't make the headlines as part of his 2000 campaign?


Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | September 14, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Re: the Michelle Malkin-provided number of "two million": that supposedly came from Nancy Pelosi on Friday, BEFORE the protests. Maybe she had in mind that numbers for protests on that day nationwide?

Posted by: LNER4472 | September 14, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

What differance does the exact number make? The Mall was full of Americans who protested peacefully and all paid their own ways to come.
Seldom has such a large crowd of Americans come together to voice their concern in the American way.
Spending is out of control and the Obama administration has no thought of stoping

Posted by: lindgrenk | September 14, 2009 10:25 PM | Report abuse

Lindgrek, you need to learn they don't want our kind on here. They'll have to interrupt their boodling to start calling you a teabagger or some or other cute name.

Posted by: capsfan77 | September 15, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

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