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Protest Over, But Crowd Size Debate Continues

By Andy Alexander

The crowd attending Saturday’s “Tea Party” protests have dispersed, but the debate continues over how many showed up.

In its lead story on the front of Sunday’s paper, The Post was cautious and said the crowd numbered “tens of thousands.”

But other estimates have put it in the hundreds of thousands, and still others have suggested as high as 1.5 million.

To some, it may seem meaningless. But to those who participated or organized the rally, the relative size is a measure of the depth of their unhappiness with President Obama and the Democrat-controlled controlled Congress. They are upset with health-care proposals and a variety of other initiatives.

Some readers have accused The Post of intentionally low-balling the crowd size. They see it as part of a plan by the “liberal” Post to diminish their cause, despite the fact that the coverage dominated Sunday’s front-page and was displayed prominently on the Web site.

In reporting the crowd size, Post editors faced a problem because local fire and police officials, as well as those from federal agencies such as the U.S. Park Police and the National Park Service, declined to release estimates.

That left The Post to offer its own assessment. Reporters covering the protests conferred among themselves and with their editors. They also made comparisons to previous crowds, such as those attending Obama’s inauguration in January or other major gatherings on the Mall.

“It didn’t seem, to the reporters who were out there, that it was hundreds of thousands,” said James Hohmann, one of the Post reporters who covered the event. “So we went with ‘tens of thousands.’ We didn’t do that to lowball it. We did it to be safe.”

Lacking official crowd estimates, and aware of the imprecision of guessing at the size, The Post story tried to give readers a description of its magnitude. It included this paragraph: “Authorities in the District do not give official crowd estimates, but Saturday’s throng appeared to number in the many tens of thousands. A sea of people surrounded the Capitol reflecting pool, spilling across Third Street and along the Mall. The sound system did not reach far enough for people at the edges of the rally to hear the speakers onstage.”

FreedomWorks, one of the groups sponsoring the event, puts the size much higher. Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the group that says it is dedicated to “lower taxes, less government, more freedom,” said it plans to update its Web site with an estimate of 600,000 to 800,000.

He said that estimate follows an examination of photos of the rally and comparing them to those from past protest marches in Washington.

Despite a different estimate on the size of the crowd, Brandon praised The Post’s coverage as “fair.”

At one point during Saturday’s rally, FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe told the crowd that ABC News was reporting that it had swelled to between 1 million and 1.5 million. That prompted ABC News to post a statement on its Web site under a headline: “ABC News Was Misquoted on Crowd Size.” “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,” it said, adding that ABC News Radio said the crowd numbered “tens of thousands.” Kibbe subsequently apologized on his blog, saying he mistakenly attributed the crowd estimate to ABC.

Whatever the size, Brandon said today that the protests were "historic." "I don't know of any other march on Washington that was dedicated to fiscal conservatism," he said in an interview. "I don't know of one where the central organizing theme was that government has grown too big and it's going to cost too much."

Estimating the size of Washington protests is a bit of a parlor game. Debates often follow major gatherings. For many of those attending from around the country, even a modest-size crowd can seem enormous to anything they have experienced at home. But expansive crowds are often smaller than they seem. Perceptions can sometimes rest on the density of the crowd. Experts generally agree that the only way to provide an accurate estimate is to actually count heads from an aerial photo. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out in a good story today on the debate over the crowd size, airspace over the Mall is restricted.

Some Internet reports on Saturday clearly overstated the crowd. The Web site for London’s Daily Mail said “as many as one million people flooded into Washington” for the “massive” rally.

A photo was widely distributed on the Internet showing a huge crowd sprawling from the U.S. Capitol down the Mall to the Washington Monument. But as the St. Petersburg Times’ “PolitiFact" noted, the photo was “more than 10 years old” and appeared to have been taken from the 1997 Promise Keepers rally. One tip-off: the photo did not include the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened on the Mall in 2004.

By Andy Alexander  | September 15, 2009; 3:52 PM ET
 
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Comments

The real question is who was there. Rush Limbaugh yesterday was in deep panic. He thought the mood was anti-Washington, anti-Congress, anti both parties.e He was pleading with his followers not to support another Ross Perot (which got his 19% with an anti-NAFTA, anti-immigrant nationalism). And polling shows that the angry "right" are also extremely angry at banks too. They are populists who are looking anyone to support. If Dean can find a subtle way to touch the Wilson anti-immigrant line, they would vote for him.

Posted by: jhough1 | September 16, 2009 12:31 AM | Report abuse

Only in the wet-noodle world of what passes for "journalism" could the so-called Ombuds whatever describe the crowd-size as a "debate".

There is no debate. It was not millions, or 100's of 1000s. By characterizing this as a "debate" you carry water for the right-wing propagandists who seek to paint their inchoate movement as much larger than it is. My advice: just stick to reporting, if anyone at the WaPo remembers how to do that. Otherwise, just turn the rest of the paper over to Fred Hiatt and let him finish the old girl off.

Posted by: IndyInNH | September 16, 2009 1:33 AM | Report abuse

London's Daily Mail is a right wing rag with no credibility. I am surprised it did not claim that the entire US population was there applauding Glenn Beck.

Posted by: craigjjs | September 16, 2009 4:52 AM | Report abuse

Just take a picture of the crowd - from above is best and then mark it off in a ten by ten grid - like a restricted checker board. Count the people in one square and multiply by 100. If you have more than one picture of another area, add it in. Add up all the pictures and you have an estimate.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | September 16, 2009 5:30 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: happywwwppp | September 16, 2009 6:21 AM | Report abuse

The 'crowd' size was less than 100000 so the original Post article was correct. The bozo Republicans lie again. The real questions are whether they can distinguish truth from fiction and whether they even care. These people will lie to your face without remorse.

Posted by: jkarlinsky | September 16, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Why is the Washington Post so afraid of these people? The size of a crowd is an important matter, a gauge of support, and it is a factual matter subject to empirical observation and judgment. And the rally happened in the newspaper's home town! Observe, report, and be done with it. Why all the hand-wringing? Why is the Post so afraid of being called "liberal"?

Posted by: chase-truth | September 16, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who has been to any of the massive Beach Boys + fireworks 4th of July celebrations, with attendance of around 600,000 - 700,000, will tell you that Metros was totally overloaded and that parking within two or three miles of the mall was almost impossible to find even though the 4th is an national holiday when federal offices are closed.

The teabaggers did NOT saturate Metro, parking or street traffic, or even come close to doing so. Their impact on local traffic and Metro use was closer to what you'd expect from a popular Nationals or Wizards game than what you see before and after a truly huge event on the mall.

Posted by: roblimo | September 16, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I rode the metro twice that day. The first time, I saw no evidence of protesters. The second time, I saw a large number of people at three stops as I passed along the Mall as the protest appeared to be ending. The metro cars on the blue/orange or red lines were not nearly as full as are trains after a large Caps, Wizards , United or Nats game. I find it very hard to believe that there were over 100,000 people at the protest.

Posted by: bigbadbri | September 16, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

They see it as part of a plan by the “liberal” Post to diminish their cause...

You really didn't need to put *liberal* in quotation marks.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | September 16, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

I got to the march on Washington by a tourbus holding 56 passengers. The Metro was not involved. Pennsylvania Ave. was full from the White House to the Capitol. I don't know how many were out toward the Washington Monument because I didn't have a vantage point. The National Park police estimated 1.7 million. It was really well attended. I did notice long lines for AMTRAK in Union Station around 4:30PM.

Posted by: allamer1 | September 16, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: allamer1

I got to the march on Washington by a tourbus holding 56 passengers. The Metro was not involved. Pennsylvania Ave. was full from the White House to the Capitol. I don't know how many were out toward the Washington Monument because I didn't have a vantage point. The National Park police estimated 1.7 million. It was really well attended. I did notice long lines for AMTRAK in Union Station around 4:30PM.

************
If tour buses with an average of 56 passengers handled the protestors, they would have needed over 30,350 buses for 1.7 million people.

Posted by: Schweg | September 16, 2009 11:29 PM | Report abuse

Yes, yes, yes we all know that when it is the right that is demonstrating, its "historic". Look. An aerial pho of this crowd compared to an aerial photo of past demonstrations in Washington, DC could easily clear this debate up but we are not getting that. Why? Because it would embarrass the right and everyone in the media know it and that is why they are not doing it.

Look. This is ludicrous. We just went thorugh a Presidential campaign where we had this same nutty phenomenon. We were told that the crowds attending the McCain-Palin rallies were "organic" and symptomatic of "something happening" out there. In fact, some of the same angry, white, puffy, sputtering faces were in attendance at the tea parties as were at Palin rallies.

Yet, when the election rolled around, all of that claptrap analysis evaporated like flatulence in the wind. And that is precisely what we are being sujected to now. Whenever you hear the words "...the American people are waking up!" think flatulence. Because that is precisely what it is. These people have a very narrow and self serving definition of just who the "American people" are.

Posted by: jaxas | September 17, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

1.5 million my arse. I was downtown on Saturday in the late afernoon/early evening. I didn't see a single protester and traffic was no heavier than on any normal Saturday. I was on K street and didn't venture down to the mall but you don't get one and a half million people into DC without snarling traffic even if a good portion of the crowd came by bus or train. Honesty and a love of facts is not exactly the tea party crowd's forte. I'm sure they had a big turnout, but their trumped up crowd estimates are a joke.

Posted by: Chip_M | September 17, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

"Some estimated as much as 1.5 million".

Heh.

"The liberal Washington Post"

Laughing so hard I can't breathe.

You reported "tens of thousands" because by reasonable accounts, that's how many there were. Michelle Malkin was caught deliberately lying about what ABC reported regarding 1.5 million, this is clear now.

Why the Washington Post, home of the most right wing, biased, roster of Neoconservative pundits around still keeps listening to and worrying about people accusing it of being "liberal" is one of the great mysteries of our time.

You can just ignore them. You've succeeded in becoming anything BUT liberal, that is, an insanely right wing Republican party organ. I mean, be that way if you want, but stop pretending there's anything to these charges of liberalism, you're safely now in the realm of the extreme right.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | September 18, 2009 5:55 AM | Report abuse

√waterfrontproperty wrote:

They see it as part of a plan by the “liberal” Post to diminish their cause...

You really didn't need to put *liberal* in quotation marks.

____


Really? So you see William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Charles Kruathammer, and George Will as "liberals"?

You see Michael Gerson, George W Bush's ex-chief speech writer, as "liberal?"

You see all of the other right wing columnists the Post has as "liberal"?

What a strange, scary world you must live in, where the most famously extreme-right-wing Neoconservatives the country has are "liberal" to you.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | September 18, 2009 5:59 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: BillEPilgrim

You see all of the other right wing columnists the Post has as "liberal"?

What a strange, scary world you must live in, where the most famously extreme-right-wing Neoconservatives the country has are "liberal" to you.

-------------------------------------------

Are the conservatives allowed no column inches? Most of the columnists, editorials and the editorial slant in news articles in the WaPo are far and away left leaning. But you, Pilgrim, will not be happy until opposing opinions are not allowed at all.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | September 18, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

On a related matter,the Sept. 18 issue of the Post has an ad on page A9 from Fox News. It's labeled "How did ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC and CNN miss this story?" It includes two photographs. One is an aerial view of a large demonstration that seems to have been taken from above the Canadian embassy. You can plainly see the Air & Space Museum However, it doesn't show the Museum of the American Indian, which means it wasn't taken in 2009. Either Fox News is very careless, or it's dishonest

Posted by: sjpatejak | September 18, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

" Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the group that says it is dedicated to “lower taxes, less government, more freedom,” said it plans to update its Web site with an estimate of 600,000 to 800,000.
"

From the Freedomworks website:
" Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Capitol Hill Saturday"
http://www.freedomworks.org/news/protesters-march-on-washington

So, Adam Brandon seems to have had a problem with the truth.

Posted by: edlharris | September 21, 2009 12:47 AM | Report abuse

You have to give the GOP credit. They can make up any baloney they want and all they have to do is whine that the "libral media" is not treating them fairly, and "presto-chango"! The moon suddenly IS made of green cheese! No wonder no one cares about newspapers anymore. If any Internet blog can give one the same fact-free truthiness - why slog through all this junk? You "news media" types gave up credibility when you all switched to cheap "he said - they said" repetition (like your column) rather than research, analysis and reporting. A small group of nuts repeating drivel does not comprise facts to be reported. Acting like it does just makes the task of gaming and manipulating you very easy to do, and you went there easily and swiftly. Anything to please your GOP masters. Unfortunately the Democrats are too inept to compete in this trash game (not too principled).

Posted by: glebec | September 21, 2009 2:19 AM | Report abuse

Here's a concept: do you level best to count the crowd using the best information and methodology you have, state your estimate and be done. No hand wringing allowed!

Nobody who wants to make big political hay with a crowd estimate number (no matter what side of the fence they're on, no matter whether a big crowd is good news or bad news to them) is going to acknowledge any estimate that doesn't advance their agenda. Let them all go push a chain.

Report the news. Let the organizers OR the critics choke on it if they don't like it.

Posted by: post_reader_in_wv | September 21, 2009 10:52 PM | Report abuse

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