Tea for Two…Million?

FreedomWorks, Twitter, and the evolution of an error

On Saturday, a collection of citizens of the Republic, armed with handmade signs, Gadsden flags, and pent-up frustration, descended on Washington’s National Mall to protest. What they were protesting, exactly, was unclear—per the signs they held, the chants they chanted, and the interviews they gave to the myriad media members dispatched to cover the latest incarnation of April’s tax-day ‘tea parties,’ participants seemed to be angry about: taxes, health care reform efforts, politicians, the media, Van Jones, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, government spending, ‘big government,’ government generally, Barack Obama, the Joker from Batman, socialism, fascism, czarism, and the (somehow) socio-fasci-czarist presidency of Barack Obama—but, in all the tumult, two general facts about the protesters emerged: 1) They were mad, and 2) They were many.

Indeed, “the magnitude of the rally took the authorities by surprise,” The New York Times noted in its write-up of the event, “with throngs of people streaming from the White House to Capitol Hill for more than three hours.”

This is not an insignificant thing. Size matters—in political rallies, in particular, for which attendance numbers are, to a large degree, the whole point. Nobody understands this better, generally, than the organizers of those rallies. Which is possibly why Matt Kibbe—president of FreedomWorks, the organization that mobilized Saturday’s protest—declared to the crowd assembled before the Capitol that, per the estimates of ABC News, rally participants numbered between 1 and 1.5 million people. Yes, million. And possibly why protest attendee Tabitha Hale, casually rounding up Kibbe’s number by between 500,000 people and a million or so people, mentioned it—multiple times—in her Twitter feed. And why Michelle Malkin linked Hale’s inflated estimate. And why, in turn, Newsbusters and Right Pundits and Wizbang and Brutally Honest and the San Francisco Examiner, among others, linked to it. Culminating in, among others, the following utterly ridiculous headline (emphasis mine): “Up to two million march to US Capitol to protest against Obama’s spending in ‘tea-party’ demonstration.”

Yeah. “Teeny, tiny fringe, huh?” Malkin scoffed. “Wow,” Hale sniffed. “Y’all flipped over that 2 million number. Too bad it’s true.”

But, of course, true it was not. Consider, after all, that an estimated 1.8 million peoplefewer people than Hale’s cavalier tea party estimate—attended Barack Obama’s inauguration. Consider, as well, dispatches from reporters in DC. (Nico Pitney: “I’d put crowd at 10-20k. Only crowded area is b/w Capitol and 3rd. First part of mall is 1/4 full.” David Schuster: “I’ve covered rallies at dc capitol for 20 years. When the crowd goes only as far as 3rd st, it is 50,000 or less.”) Consider the aerial pictures of the 9/12 protests—which depict a healthy crowd, to be sure, but nothing remotely suggestive of seven figures.

And consider that ABC News never reported that the protest had over a million participants.

Yeah. As ABC’s Yunji de Nies, who spent Saturday on the ground in DC reporting on the rally, tweeted on Saturday afternoon, “Tweeps, I’m confused. Keep hearing ppl say ‘ABC news is reporting 2 million’ - where is this coming from? have not heard anyone say that.” (Later, she elaborated: “I don’t know where those numbers are coming from, but there’s no way there were 2 million there.” And, a bit later: “for the record, park police and capitol police do NOT give crowd estimates. so far @dcfireems is the only official agency to release #s.” And, a bit later: ““have checked all of our coverage - ABC never reported 2 million. if you find it, send it to me. this is a total myth.”)

To make the matter extra official, ABCNews.com, on early Saturday evening, posted the following for-the-record, headlined “ABC News Was Misquoted on Crowd Size”:

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.”

Brendan Steinhauser, spokesman for FreedomWorks, said he did not know why Kibbe cited ABC News as a source.

As a result of Kibbe’s erroneous attribution, several bloggers and commenters repeated the misinformation.

It’s worth noting that the other mainstream media outlets covering the tea party protest story—from The Washington Post to The New York Times, from Politico to Fox News—ran with the D.C. fire department’s official, 60,000-to-70,000 crowd estimate. Even Glenn Beck, who fashioned himself, from his perch in New York City, the day’s master of ceremonies via his 9/12 Project, grudgingly accepted those numbers: “The official estimate is 60,000 people,” he said during his live coverage of the protest. “I’ve lived in Washington. It looks more than 60,000. But we’ll go with the official numbers today.”

But, then, per much of the blogged coverage of the protests: the numbers don’t matter much, anyway. Because the point of the whole exercise on Saturday was not, apparently, to gather a crowd in the numeric sense; the point was, apparently, to gather a crowd in the symbolic sense. “I dunno if that’s 2 million,” The Rhetorician, poster of a much-linked time-lapse video of the crowd, remarked. “But really, who the hell cares? Put any number you want on them. The video speaks for itself. And this is what it says: It’s not just a Mob. It’s a popular movement.”

It’s that who-the-hell-cares sensibility that defined the day on Saturday. Here, again, is Malkin: “As I joked after the Tax Day Tea Party: ‘When left-wing activists make crowd estimates, the algorithm is: Six figures = one million.’ Safe to say, by liberal math standards, today’s turnout rivaled the ‘Million Man March’ and the ‘Million Mom March’ for sure.”

Indeed, numbers themselves, per this rendering of reality, are relative. “However big it was,” Hot Air’s Allah wrote of the crowd, “it was bigger than expected.” As The Cypress Times’s John Winder put it, “‘Media’ estimates range from 60,000 to 500,000 to around 2 million (yes, 2,000,000). Those estimates, the language employed, and the visuals chosen for use in reporting the rally and representing the people gathered, vary greatly based solely on bias.” And here’s the Pajamas Media blogger Stephen Green: “Tens of thousands? Technically accurate, but….”

But therein lies the problem. “Technically accurate” is, in general, not something that can fairly be followed with a “but.” When it comes to something readily observable—like, say, the size of a crowd—“technical accuracy” is not a matter of opinion. It is not something that can be accepted or rejected at will.

And yet, Green again: “Charlie Martin—a computer scientist with extensive intelligence experience—emails from his secret bunker near Boulder, CO: I did a back-of-envelope based on the photos and reports. A pretty dense crowd is about 1.8 people per square meter, and the National Mall alone is about 125 hectares, 1.25 million square meters. So that would be 2.3 million people. Given the report from Steve of an actual literal count of 450K early on, I think the 2 million number is *very* plausible.”

Well, okay. And it’s good, of course, to truth-squad the “official estimates”—of crowd numbers and most everything else. (“Do not believe any description that says ‘thousands,’” Reason’s Matt Welch declared. “If there weren’t at least a healthy six figures there, I will permanently revoke my head-counting license.”) But, then, here’s Green’s kicker: “Knowing Charlie like I do, I’m inclined to trust his guestimates [sic] more than most people’s ‘facts.’ Which in this case… whoa.”

Whoa indeed. But leaving aside the particular qualifications of Charlie Martin and his secret-bunker calculations—it’s telling here that Green discusses facts in terms of trust. “Most people’s ‘facts’” are, per his rendering, propositions rather than information—and, for that matter, propositions that hinge on intuition (‘trust’) rather than perception. Now, sure, one could claim that ‘facts’ as we know them are socially mediated propositions, the mere products of powerful elites, etc., etc….still, though, there’s something immensely troubling about this kind of blasé treatment of observable reality. Counting crowds—especially big ones—is, to be sure, notoriously difficult; still, as Steve Doig pointed out after Obama’s inauguration: “Some fairly simple math can be used to make defensible estimates of crowd sizes.” Matt Kibbe’s exaggeration-gone-viral wasn’t, in other words, a case of mathematical impairment; the impairment, rather, was cognitive.

Facts, it should hardly need clarifying, are non-negotiable: they are not things to be trusted; they are things to be dealt with. Nate Silver reminds us of that in his call-out of Kibbe’s telephone-game-starter: “There is a big difference, obviously, between 70,000 and 2,000,000. That’s not a twofold or threefold exaggeration — it’s roughly a thirtyfold exaggeration.”

The way this false estimate came into being is relatively simple: Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, lied, claiming that ABC News had reported numbers of between 1.0 and 1.5 million when they never did anything of the sort. A few tweets later, the numbers had been exaggerated still further to 2 million. Kibbe wasn’t “in error”, as Malkin gently puts it [in her update to her 9/12 tea party post]. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long.

What we saw on Saturday was, overall, a confirmation of what most of us sense (and what Pew has now officially confirmed): that trust in the national media is at an all-time low. The proof of that wasn’t just the signs professing the protestors’ mistrust of those media, or the chants professing the same, or the clichéd criticisms of the MSM hurled by Glenn Beck from the irony-oozing confines of his midtown Manhattan megastudio. It was more than that. It was, at the fringes, a mistrust of the media’s methods themselves—and of mediated information more generally. It was the spreading sensibility that said, “We don’t trust the official numbers. And they don’t really matter, anyway. Our movement is above numbers. Our movement is above fact.”

We’ve seen that sensibility before, of course—and, of course, we’ll see it again. But that’s unfortunate, because it does a disservice to everyone—most of all, perhaps, to the people like the protesters who came out, on Saturday, to have their voices heard. To frame a message and its manifestations as somehow above logic is also, after all, to frame them as beyond logic. It’s to delegitimize the whole movement—and, yes, it is a movement—as a political entity. It’s to give credence to the oft-repeated claim that “the base is not reality-based,” and to suggest that a loyal opposition is also a laughable one. Numbers can be symbolic, sure. But first they have to be accurate.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.