The Glenn Beck Numbers Game

The number matters, but which number?

With no official headcounter at the National Mall, Glenn Beck’s determinedly non-political “Restoring Honor” rally has the media dusting off their abacuses (abacusi?) to best estimate crowd turnout. After all, size does matter here. A solid crowd measurement could indicate just how monumental or miniscule a movement Beck has started and would offer a gauge on where exactly he fits in history, if he fits in there at all. Heck, an accurate enough figure might even suggest we’ve been paying more attention to an angry/peaceful/religious/political/apolitical rally than other stories just because its organizer has been hawking it for the past few months on his popular TV show.

So, how many people showed? Beck joked in his opening comments: “I have just gotten word from the media that there is over 1,000 people here today.” Here is what they really said:

*As expected, Fox News came up with the largest figure, claiming over 500,000 heads. Wait, that’s actually the second largest figure—Michelle Bachmann told her own rally over the weekend, “”We’re not going to let anyone get away with saying there were less than a million here.”

*Al Jazeera rated the turnout at “about 100,000.”

*The Wall Street Journal’s Neil King Jr. wrote: “The National Park Service, conforming with its recent practice, said it would not provide a crowd estimate. But the gathering packed a vast area of the Mall and appeared to be one of the largest rallies of recent years in the nation’s capital.”

*The Times similarly shied from anything too concrete. “Washington officials do not make crowd estimates, but NBC News estimated the turnout at 300,000, while Mr. Beck offered a range of 300,000 to 650,000. By any measure it was a large turnout.”

*NPR echoed that sentiment: “There was no way to get an accurate count on the Tea Party faithful, or the throngs at large. But it was a massive turnout.”

*The Sydney Morning Herald reminded readers that “at least 150,000 people watched on Facebook.” (Yes, they apparently care down there what Glenn Beck’s up to.)

For a nice breakdown of the numbers, and some historical context—“given the money and technology available to Beck, it feels like there should be a way to adjust for inflation when it comes to historical comparisons of crowd sizes”—see Greg Sargent’s Plum Line column today.

It was CBS who stepped out from the pack and made efforts to measure the crowd with a little more precision than a several-hundred-thousand-person range. Enlisting Virginia-based, which uses aerial crowd shots to estimate the numbers of people at an event, CBS came up with an impressive if not historic crowd estimate of 87,000 people. Photos used for the measurement were taken at noon, considered the high point of rally attendance, and there was a margin of error of 9,000.

We contacted Curt Westergard, president of Digitial Design and Imaging Service which operates Due to a contractual obligation, he was unable to comment in detail on the methodology used in the Beck rally count. He did say, however, that it is as “scientific as you can get in a field full of variables.”

A report from CNET about crowd estimations for the presidential inauguration gives some insight into how it gets done.

“Crowd counting is an art,” said Curt Westergard, president of Digital Design and Imaging Service, which took photos of the event with 360-degree spherical panoramic cameras attached to balloons bobbing 500 feet above and a few blocks away from the White House. Fiber-optic cables tethered the balloons to a special launch trailer, which transmitted live shots to CNN.

“We’re trying to contribute some of the oblique-angle photos of the scene that might see things under trees that satellite photos might miss (or) people standing in alcoves,” he said.

The cameras took the shots between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. EST, when they were forced to shut down due to air space regulations. The balloons, which measure about 12.5 feet in diameter, only rose to 500 feet instead of 800 feet because of issues with President Bush’s helicopter, according to Westergard.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.