January 19, 2003

The Numbers Game

A political protest is by nature confrontational, but, aside whatever issue at stake, the most spirited debate typically focuses on one question: How many people were actually there?

Organizers claim official headcounts provided by police are institutionally deflated; authorities say the reverse is true. In the middle are reporters, who by deadline time must add insert a number into a lede similar to this one (AP's): XXXXXXXXXX rallied in the capital Saturday. …"

So, how many anti-war protestors were there in San Francisco and Washington Saturday? Depends on where you get you news from.

 San Francisco Chronicle: "In Washington … as many as 500,000 protesters rallied outside the Capitol, while in San Francisco tens of thousands of peace activists …"

"The protest's organizers … estimated the crowd at 200,000. Police put the number at 55,000."

That second graf is straightforward enough, but where did the Chron get the half-million number for D.C.? It's never attributed in this story.

 San Jose Mercury News: "In a protest that was equal parts politics, theater and whimsy, more than 40,000 people gathered in San Francisco on Saturday. ..."

 Washington Post: "Tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators converged on Washington yesterday. … This time, they (organizers) said, the turnout was 500,000. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey would not provide an estimate."

 New York Times: "…tens of thousands of protesters representing a diverse coalition for peace converged here today …" No other estimate is given.

 Baltimore Sun: "Standing close together for solidarity - and warmth - tens of thousands of protesters … (organizers) said 500,000 demonstrators turned out, though U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer told the Associated Press that the crowd along the two-mile march route measured "about 30,000 people."

 Actually, what the AP reported is quite different: "Tens of thousands rallied in the capital. … Police said 30,000 marched through the streets, part of a much larger crowd that packed the east end of the National Mall. .... Tens of thousands also demonstrated in San Francisco."

To ask our question again, How many protestors were there? The consensus, taken from the best of America's newspapers: Tens of thousands. Did you get the feeling neither the cops nor the news media really care about the count anymore?

Posted by Tim Porter at January 19, 2003 09:03 AM