Counting Crowd Size At The Tea Party

In Hong Kong, the crowd size count at public demonstrations is a highly controversial matter.  Here is a list of previous posts:

However, what the people of Hong Kong do not appreciate is that they have the most sophisticated statistical methodologies in the world to count crowd sizes.  Below are the media reports on the crowd size at a mass rally in Washington DC, USA.

Just as in Hong Kong, the organizers got themselves into deep trouble by making a claim that was highly inflated and wrongly sourced.  As a result, the focus of the news coverage shifted over to the crowd size estimate instead of whatever the original goals of the rally were.

It is appropriate to quote the director of the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme Robert Chung here (HKU POP):

Whether it is June 4, July 1 or any other mass gatherings or demonstrations, the headcount figures announced by the organizers and government units often show a huge difference. Director of POP Robert Chung have the following impressions after conducting totally 16 headcounts over the past 7 years:

Before our society takes scientific headcount figures seriously, when reporting these figures, it would be better for our media to add expressions like ¡§according to organizers¡¦ claim¡¨, ¡§police estimates¡¨, and ¡§method unknown¡¨ when quoting them.

(War Room at  Teabaggers can't do math.  By Alex Koppelman.  September 14, 2009.

Let's just get right to the point here: There is simply no way there were anywhere near 2 million people at the Tea Party march on Washington this weekend.

Conservative bloggers and activists were crowing after the march about the number of people they got out to protest against such horribly un-American ideas as healthcare for people who need it. As Salon's Alex Koppelman reported on Saturday, the organizers were pretty sure they'd set some kind of record. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican -- whom in a just world might qualify as the nuttiest GOP lawmaker, but who really can't hold a candle to Michelle Bachmann -- told the crowd Saturday that the highways around D.C. had been closed due to the overwhelming turnout. (Which, if the Tea Party movement is essentially the right-wing version of Woodstock, makes Blackburn Arlo Guthrie.) Michelle Malkin has been trying to bait progressives with photos she claims show a huge crowd massing in the D.C. streets -- even though she wasn't actually at the march.

The 2 million figure turned out to be based on, well, nothing; FreedomWorks, the right-wing group led by Dick Armey, had erroneously claimed ABC had reported it. But there's no need to actually fact-check a claim like that, or Blackburn's declaration that the highways were closed -- it's obviously false on the face of it. I wasn't able to get to the march Saturday, but I was a passenger in a car driving on the Capital Beltway, which was never closed.

More important, 2 million people is actually more than attended Obama's inauguration. The estimates for that event ranged up to about 1.8 million. The disruption that caused in the city was impossible to miss -- subway stations closed, streets blocked off, hours-long delays on public transportation and roads as people filtered out of the District. Nothing of the sort happened Saturday -- by 5 p.m., D.C. officials had sent out an alert saying there was no sign of the Tea Party crowd anymore. It's completely impossible to imagine 10 percent more people showed up to protest Obama's administration than turned out to see his historic inauguration, and conservatives should have known that without needing anyone to verify the math involved.

Not surprisingly, some of the right are also using fake evidence to document their claims. A photo circulating on conservative blogs purported to show a massive crowd stretching from the Capitol past the Washington monument on Saturday. But PolitiFact, the political equivalent of the urban legend-busting site, reported Monday that the picture was taken at least a decade ago.

Still, that all leaves about even odds on whether Glenn Beck -- who tied his kooky 9-12 Project in with the march -- will be boasting on his show Monday afternoon about the millions and millions of people who turned out Saturday to fight socialism. Or Nazism. Or Nazi-Marxism. Or something.

(Columbia Journal Review)  Tea for two ... million?  By Megan Garber.  September 14, 2009.

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¡Xper 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¡Xbut, 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¡Xin 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¡Xpresident of FreedomWorks, the organization that mobilized Saturday¡¦s protest¡Xdeclared 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¡Xmultiple times¡Xin 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 people¡Xfewer people than Hale¡¦s cavalier tea party estimate¡Xattended 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¡Xwhich 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,, 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. 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¡Xfrom The Washington Post to The New York Times, from Politico to Fox News¡Xran 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¡K.¡¨

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¡Xlike, say, the size of a crowd¡X¡§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¡Xa computer scientist with extensive intelligence experience¡Xemails 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¡¨¡Xof 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¡K whoa.¡¨

Whoa indeed. But leaving aside the particular qualifications of Charlie Martin and his secret-bunker calculations¡Xit¡¦s telling here that Green discusses facts in terms of trust. ¡§Most people¡¦s ¡¥facts¡¦¡¨ are, per his rendering, propositions rather than information¡Xand, 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¡K.still, though, there¡¦s something immensely troubling about this kind of blasé treatment of observable reality. Counting crowds¡Xespecially big ones¡Xis, 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 ¡X 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¡Xand 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¡Xand, of course, we¡¦ll see it again. But that¡¦s unfortunate, because it does a disservice to everyone¡Xmost 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¡Xand, yes, it is a movement¡Xas 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.

(Media Matters for America)  Michelle Malkin and the anatomy of the 2 million protestor lie.  By Eric Boehlert.  September 14, 2009.

Blame it on a tweet.

It turns out that's what kicked off the right-wing blogosphere's comically inept misinformation campaign last weekend to try to swell the size of Saturday's anti-Obama protest in the nation's capital, to jack the crowd size up to the wildly inflated -- and erroneous -- number of 2 million people.

Nice try.

According to estimates provided by the Washington, D.C., fire department, Malkin and friends were only off by 1,930,000 people. In other words, Malkin, citing fictitious press accounts, led the charge to falsely inflate the size of the crowd by 30 times. Malkin and company, desperate to dress up the tea party event as a mass movement, saw a relatively modest crowd of 70,000 GOP protesters and imagined it was 2 million strong. (She's a dreamer, I suppose.)

Worse, Malkin spent most of Saturday in denial, refusing to update her transparently false report, which meant the rest of the right-wing blogosphere also played dumb on a massive scale and kept excitedly repeating the manufactured claim. The scary part is that within the fact-free conservative blogosphere, lots of people still believe the 2 million nonsense, or are at least repeating it. They believe it despite the fact that nobody can point to any evidence to support it.

For most sane observers, what transpired over the weekend resembled a comical bout of telephone tag -- the game schoolchildren play when they whisper something into a friend's ear and then get a big laugh when, six or seven friends later, they hear how distorted the original message has become via garbled repetition. (Two million protesters!) The sad part is that right-wing bloggers are serious. They think they're engaging in some bold new era of citizen journalism. Instead, they just, you know, make stuff up.

It's just the latest example in a string of unforgettable whoppers from online conservatives who rarely let the facts get in the way of a good story. And, yes, irony abounds in that right-wing bloggers hate the press and that they hate the practice of journalism. They lecture reporters about accountability and fairness all the time, yet whenever amateur conservatives try their hand at reporting, they just produce guffaws for the rest of us. (Did I mention they miscalculated the size of the crowd by 1,930,000 people?)

On Saturday, facts didn't matter because right-wing ringleader Malkin was helping to spread a sprawling (and illogical) lie, and her dutiful followers knew just what to do: spread it hard and fast. Perhaps Malkin's only regret was she didn't aim higher; she could have claimed there were news reports of 12 million people protesting in D.C., and I'm sure every one of her willingly gullible devotees would have linked to her.

The amusing part of the weekend's blind-leading-the-blind charade was that Malkin already has a very long and detailed history of manufacturing phony stories that later leave nasty stains all over the blogosphere when they turn out to be turds. (Paging Jamil Hussein.) And that's what I think was so revealing about the 2 million-people-in-D.C. fiasco: Nobody within the right-wing blogosphere seems to be the slightest bit upset, let alone embarrassed or chastened, for having been part of a farcical, inept attempt to inflate the size of Saturday's rally by 1,930,000 people. Nobody seems to think it reflects poorly on them as a community, or that it will damage their collective reputation.

They really are shameless. And they really do inhabit their own parallel political universe where everyone's allergic to facts.

Why the shamelessness? Sadly, members of the GOP Noise Machine are acutely aware there is no downside to just lying 24/7. Malkin knows that no TV producers are going to deny her an on-air spot because she purposefully spread the patently phony claim that 2 million people gathered in Washington, D.C. (i.e. that the city's population quadrupled overnight). The Beltway press rarely holds the Noise Machine accountable, so of course they're going to just keep lying (what's the downside?), since it's obvious they don't really care about facts to begin with.

The conservative comedy of errors began on Saturday when Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, took to the rally stage and unfurled a massive lie. He told the crowd ABC News had reported that between 1 million to 1.5 million people had gathered to protest Obama's policies. (Later, a FreedomWorks flack conceded she had no idea know why Kibbe manufactured the claim about ABC News.)

Immediately, conservative activist Tabitha Hale (aka "pinkelephantpun") tweeted Kibbe's lie but added an additional 500,000 people to the tally: "ABC reporting 2 million people."

Seven minutes later, Malkin re-tweeted Hale's claim. Then, one minute after that, Malkin turned that tweet into part of her ongoing protest coverage. Intrepid "reporter" Malkin took an unsupported tweet and reported it as news:

12:34pm Eastern: Police estimate 1.2 million in attendance. ABC News reporting crowd at 2 million -- tweets Tabitha Hale from D.C.

Teeny, tiny fringe, huh?

Note that in her blog post there were no links for Malkin's utterly fantastic claim, no place on the Web where readers could go and confirm that D.C. police had pegged the crowd at 1.2 million or that ABC had made the staggering claim of 2 million. The lack of live links should have been a massive red flag for readers and fellow bloggers, especially when it was associated with such a controversial and news-breaking claim.

But, of course, Malkin had no links or any real facts to go on. All she had was a couple of tweets from Hale, who, in retrospect, appeared to have spent much of Saturday just making shit up.

But again, none of that mattered, because Malkin had spoken (2 million!) and the right-wing bloggers knew what to do. Let's take a stroll through the far-right blogosphere and see which sites did their best to spread Malkin's patently absurd claim about 2 million protesters. [Emphasis added.]


Pajamas Media's Roger Simon:

I can remember telling Glenn Reynolds during CPAC that these Tea Party demonstrations were rinky-dink and going nowhere. Barely more than a half-year later, they're putting two million people on the Washington Mall. Wow!

Jawa Report:

UPDATE:(Newbie): Crowd estimated by ABC NEWS: 2 MILLION!

Looking at the Left:

ABC News reports that two million Americans flooded D.C. in what people in the crowd were calling "a conservative Woodstock" Like the liberal Woodstock of the '60s, thousands were rumored stranded on freeways.

Atlas Shrugs:

The two photos above show a tiny fraction of the two million ABC estimates attended.

NewsBusters, the day after the 2 million people story had been debunked:

You'll note no mention of the D.C. rally yesterday that drew an estimated 1-2 million people.


Michelle Malkin reported on her site that ABC News estimated the crowd to be 2 million people.


Rick at Brutally Honest linked to this awesome time lapse video showing progression of the approximately 2 million people who marched in DC today:

Riehl World View:

ABC Reports 2 Million At DC Rally

Right Pundits:

Michelle Malkin is reporting that estimated turnout is now 2 million people.

And then there was the sad, confused work of blogger Stephen Green. Doing his best to spread the word about the supposedly massive crowd size on Saturday, Green first claimed that CNN had reported the crowd was 2 million strong. (CNN never did any such thing.) Then later under a banner that read "correction," Green, following Malkin's phony lead, reported it was ABC News that reported 2 million protesters were on hand. (Green then failed to correct his "correction.")

Of course, the 2 million tally never made sense. Not only couldn't anybody find ABC's alleged reporting, but no other news organization (not even rally co-sponsor Fox News) were going anywhere near the 2 million mark. Instead, most of Saturday's reports used phrases like "tens of thousands" to describe the crowd size.

Just after 4 p.m. Saturday, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted the glaring discrepancy: "ABC News reporting crowd at 2 million." Front page, "thousands march on Capitol"  

By the end of that 4 o'clock hour, ABC's News' Yunji de Nies also weighed in:

Later that afternoon, ABC News took the unusual step of reporting an article about itself. Headlined "ABC News Was Misquoted on Crowd Size," the dispatch, designed solely to knock down the false rumor that Malkin helped hype, was quite emphatic:

At no time did ABC News, or its affiliates, report a number anywhere near as large. 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."

Finally, near day's end, Malkin finally addressed her bogus ABC News claim and pointed the finger of blame at FreedomWorks' Kibbe. (He's the one who first mentioned ABC News.) Malkin then thanked ABC News for "clearing this up," without noting that "this" was launched when Malkin broadcast a completely fictitious claim without the slightest hint of attribution and then waited most of the day to acknowledge her colossal blunder. And note that Malkin blamed Kibbe because Kibbe told the rally that ABC News had estimated the crowd to be between 1 million and 1.5 million. But Malkin told the world ABC News had claimed it was 2 million. So how was that Kibbe's fault?

Post-protest, some conservatives, such as Instapundit, still tried to push the phony 2 million claim by clinging to a typically awful and unsubstantiated article from the British press that originally suggested "up to two million people" marched on Washington. The article, though, lacked any sourcing. It was just another case of the British press regurgitating a right-wing lie. (The article was later changed to include an equally misleading claim: "As many as one million people flooded into Washington for a massive rally.")

By Saturday night, RedState blogger Erick Erickson, conceding the 2 million number was pure fantasy, did his best to clear up the confusion:

I've been talking all night to people who are there and involved. The 2 million number was generated by the media, but truly seems to be a gross inflation of what is there.

And with that we traveled full circle in the unstable world of the right-wing blogosphere. According to press-hating Erickson, it was the media that concocted the wildly inflated 2 million number. (ABC News again?) In the new, sanitized telling, Malkin's dirty hands, of course, had been completely washed and her leading role in the embarrassing charade had been forgotten and forgiven. Because at the end of the day, it was the media's fault all along.

(  Time Magazine: the liberal bias of facts.  By Glenn Greenwald.  September 17, 2009.

 Just released Time Magazine article on Glenn Beck:

On Sept. 12, a large crowd gathered in Washington to protest ... what? The goals of Congress and the Obama Administration, mainly ¡X the cost, the scale, the perceived leftist intent. The crowd's agenda was wide-ranging, so it's hard to be more specific. "End the Fed," a sign read. A schoolboy's placard denounced "Obama's Nazi Youth Militia." Another poster declared, "We the People for Capitalism Not Socialism." If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic. Either way, you may not be inclined to believe what we say about numbers, according to a recent poll that found record-low levels of public trust of the mainstream media.

Washington Post chat with reporter Michael Fletcher, yesterday:

9/12 crowds: Hello, Michael. Thanks for taking questions. What is the best and most educated guess about the size of the crowds in DC on Sept. 12? There is quite a discrepancy between 60,000 and 2 million. Why is it so hard to get a good estimate?

Michael A. Fletcher: Both of those sound high, and clearly the second number is way, way high. My colleagues say it was in the tens of thousands, probably around 20,00 or 30,000 although it is hard to tell and police did not release an estimate.

Eric Boehlert has masterfully documented how right-wing claims about the number of protesters was literally invented out of whole cloth -- Michelle Malkin simply made up a number (2 million) that was repeated by right-wing sources far and wide, and Glenn Beck then did the same (1.7 million) -- and bears no relationship whatsoever to reality.  But either way, the reports of tens of thousands came not from "liberal sources" but from the establishment media.  Just yesterday, the Post's Fletcher reported that his journalist colleagues - not Daily Kos -- "say it was in the tens of thousands, probably around 20,00 or 30,000."

But Time isn't allowed to critique right-wing claims even when they're totally false.  Doing that would make Rush Limbaugh and Fox News angry.  So rather than pointing out what actually happened -- that right-wing claims about march attendance were false and debunked by news organizations -- they have to pretend that this is, as always, nothing more than an irreconcilable dispute about reality between the Right and the Left, and it's not up to Time to tell their readers what the truth is, because that's not their role, since they're objective and unbiased.  According to the rules of establishment journalism, there is no truth and no facts -- only competing, irreconcilable claims from "the Right and the Left," and their only job is to mindlessly repeat those claims (note this New York Times article on Jon Kraukauer's new book on the military-created, right-wing-exploited, media-enabled fraud surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, a Chomsky-reading Iraq war opponent, which claims that "the book rescues Tillman from both the spin doctors on the right, who tried to make him into an advertisement for Republican values, and cynics on the left, who dismissed him as a mindless, knee-jerk patriot," even though the only "cynic on the left" ever to do any such thing was a single cartoonist; but "balance" is needed and thus the two sides must be posited as equal even though it was the military, the Bush administration and the pro-war Right that repeatedly lied about Tillman).

Here, the reality -- that the 9/12 crowd numbered in the "tens of thousands" -- has to be dismissed as coming from "liberal sources" because, as Stephen Colbert famously pointed out, "reality has a liberal bias."  Time's readers are thus kept in the dark about the actual facts of this matter, and are actively deceived into believing that reports from establishment journalists that debunked right-wing hyperbole are nothing more than "information from liberal sources" that should be deemed every bit as paritsan and suspect as the blatant right-wing falsehoods.  That's how American journalism typically functions.

Note the primitive nature of the counting methodology compared to what they do in Hong Kong:

(USA TODAY)  Park services changes course, plans to offer crowd estimate.  By Martha T. Moore.  January 20, 2009.

Reversing a 13-year-old policy, the National Park Service said Monday that it will offer an official crowd estimate for today's presidential inauguration to determine whether the event will set a record.

The largest inauguration crowd is believed by the National Park Service to be 1.2 million people for the swearing-in of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. President Clinton's 1993 ceremony drew 800,000 people, according to the park service.

Barna said the National Park Police will take aerial photos at the moment of President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in that the park service will use for a crowd estimate. He said the agency should have a crowd estimate later this week.

"None of us here want to go through the next 20 years saying LBJ was the biggest we've ever had if that's not true," Barna said.

The park service stopped releasing crowd estimates in 1996, when Congress stripped its budget of money to do so following a controversy over the estimate for the 1994 Million Man March. Barna said there is debate within the park service over whether that prohibition was permanent or just for that year.

Disputes over the size of gatherings, especially protests, are common, said Paul Wertheimer of Crowd Management Strategies. Large crowds of people "mean power in a political situation, or they mean money in a commercial situation. So the numbers are very important to the people who put on an event."

The District of Columbia police will estimate the crowd for its own information but will not release the number, said Traci Hughes of the joint information center for law enforcement agencies involved in the inauguration.

"Somehow or other I think we will wind up seeing a range of estimates," said Steve Doig, a journalism professor at Arizona State University. Doig plans to estimate the crowd with the use of photos taken early today from a tethered balloon over the National Mall.

The inauguration has been predicted to draw large crowds virtually since Obama's election in November. Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty's office said it expects 2 million.

Estimating the size of a crowd requires aerial photographs, dimensions of the gathering space, and an estimate of the crowd's density.

If the National Mall is densely packed from Third Street to the Washington Monument, and if the area from the monument to the Lincoln Memorial has an average density, the space could contain 1.5 million people, Barna said. Average density is one person per 5 square feet. A tightly packed crowd has a density of one person per 2.5 square feet, an area slightly larger than this newspaper.

Clark McPhail, a University of Illinois professor and expert in crowd estimation, said it's "very important" to provide a number, even if only an estimate. "These are events of historical significance," he said. "A president ought to be able to know how many people turn out for his inauguration."

By comparison with the one person per 2.5 square feet estimate, HKU POP has this more detailed estimate:

Because of different densities in different areas, one should have to multiply different areas by their corresponding density in order to obtain accurate figures. However, because there were too many people assembled, and the researchers could hardly move inside the soccer pitches, nor see the sideline clearly. The research team finally had to use the average density obtained from measuring small penalty boxes to represent the average density of all soccer pitches, the Central Lawn, the Pavilion Area and the basketball courts. The figure was 2.67 people per sq. meters, obtained by repeated measurements taken at different time and different points. It was a bit lower than the figure collected in 2004 and 2005, which was 2.82 people per sq. meters, by a more sophisticated method.

As for the pathway around the soccer pitches, according to the research team¡¦s observation and estimation, the average density in the southern pathway of the 3 soccer pitches closest to the stage is about 2.27 people per sq. meters; the average density of the northern pathway of these 3 pitches is about 3.12 people per sq. meters. The average densities of the southern and northern pathways of the 3 soccer pitches farthest from the stage are 1.28 people per sq. meters and 2.87 people per sq. meters respectively.

The total area of all locations except the pathways around the soccer pitches is about 41,260 sq. meters, multiplied by 2.67 people per sq. meter, the total number of people was 110,000. Adding the number of people in those pathways calculated by different density figures, and using +/- 10% as the operational error, the final number should fall in between 108,000 and 132,000.