Check Your Facts

If I’m a little late in commenting on the vast differences in the reported head count at the so-called Taxpayer March on September 12 in Washington, it’s because I took the time to do some homework (with the help of my assistant Colette).

I first noticed that reporters were including a wide range of numbers in their stories about the march in an article analyzing the significance of the march on the front page in the September 15 edition of the Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune.  Here’s the paragraph in question:

“Estimates of the crowd size ranged from a low of 75,000 to a high of 2 million. A number of news organizations reported that more than 1.2 million people attended. “

Now my ethical sixth sense as a former journalist tells me that the discrepancy in numbers from 75,000 to 2 million is so great that the reporter should have cited the names of those news organizations that were reporting these figures. 

As some readers will know, the political bent of most articles and opinion pieces in the Trib-Review is decidedly right-wing.  I therefore immediately thought that the higher figures were probably spurious numbers.  

To check my hypothesis, first I had Colette look online for news media accounts of the march that mentioned that a number of news organizations reported that more than 1.2 million people attended, but without citing the organizations. Colette found dozens upon dozens of these stories, including from The Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, Hawaii Free Press, Care2.com and The Huntsville Times.

The next step was to find which news media had actually reported these large numbers of marchers, and in doing so I uncovered what may be labeled a conspiracy of incompetence.  As we will see, the main stream media allowed the larger numbers to get into the mainstream public discussion by citing the broad range of numbers in a typical “he said, she said” approach to story-writing, instead of going to the original sources and finding out who really said what. 

We found very few citations in the news media or online of reporters naming the parties actually providing head counts, but here’s what we did find:

  • In his September 14 show, Glen Beck said that The London Telegraph reported that more than a million people attended the Taxpayer March. In fact, what the London Telegraph actually said was “There was no official count.”
  • In one of its stories on the march,  Hawaii Free Press says on September 14 that the Daily Mall, another British paper, stated that “up to two million marched on the U.S. Capital.”  The Daily Mall did say “up to one million,” which is the only number reported by the news media that turns out to actually have been proposed by a cited reporter/media outlet. How the one turned into a two is anyone’s guess.
  • The American Thinker reported that the National Park Service called the march the largest event ever held in Washington.  That was a lie.  What the Park Service said, as reported for example in Washington Post, was that the Inauguration of President Barack Obama had the largest crowd of any event ever held in our nation’s capital.
  • As The Nation points out, during the rally part of the march, one of the organizers announced onstage that ABC News estimated the crowd at from 1.0 million to 1.5 million.  Of course, ABC News issued a quick denial.
  • An ultra-conservative friend said he heard that by analyzing a photograph, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin concluded that there were 2 million people at the Taxpayer March.  We checked this claim out too.  In reality, it was Glen Beck who cited a university study but could not remember the name of the university.  That was it for this weird rumor.

By contrast, a number of news organizations directly cited estimates of from 10,000 to 75,000 and pit their names behind the estimate, including Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Associated Press and Fox News.com.

At the end of the day, if news media outlets wanted to cite low and high range numbers (instead of accepting the low range consensus), they should have said that the Daily Mall estimated that as many as 1.0 million people were in attendance.  Why didn’t they? Occam’s razor, that principle that the simplest explanation is probably the best, might say that they didn’t think the Daily Mall’s one claim of a million stood up real well against multiple claims of under 100,000.

Citing numbers that no one is actually using is a variation on the Matt Drudge phenomenon that has already weakened the ethical standards of journalists and other writers.  The Matt Drudge phenomenon occurred when reporters started reporting what Matt Drudge said about the facts of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  Drudge was not always right, but that did not matter to mainstream reporters who instead of investigating allegations themselves instead told us what Matt had reported.  While Drudge got some things right, he got far from everything right, and the longer the scandal went on, the less right he turned out to be. 

But quoting Drudge allowed the news media to present an anti-Clinton (and at heart an anti-progressive) bias as facts without having to defend the facts. It’s the very same approach used by the news media who reported numbers without citing which organization provided the numbers.  The effect in the later case was to give the false impression that the views of the Taxpayers March represent a large majority of the country, and not just one corner of the increasingly marginalized right wing.

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