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Did Stewart and Colbert measure up to Glenn Beck?

By Annys Shin

Monday UPDATE: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert grossly underestimated the likely attendance at their rally on Saturday. Although the permit for the rally anticipated a crowd of 60,000, the best estimates put actual attendance in the neighborhood of 200,000, compared to the 90,000 or so believed to have attended Glenn Beck's rally in late August.

Once again, the National Park Service demurred on providing a head count, leaving that chore up to the new de facto crowd counter: CBS News and a company called, which based its estimate on aerial photos of the event.

It's unclear why Stewart/Colbert put in for such a low number. Maybe they wanted to downplay expectations. Or maybe they just didn't want to spring for more Porta-Potties. Either way, I would never plan a wedding with them.

ORIGINAL POST: In the post-mortem that will surely follow Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, there is certainly going to be discussion about how many people turned out -- in the name of truthiness, of course.

Counting heads on the National Mall is hard work. So hard and controversial, that the National Park Service refuses to do it anymore.

The final tally of attendees at Glenn Beck's rally in August ranged from 80,000 to 500,000, depending on who was doing the figuring -- or outright lying.

Jon Stewart doesn't expect to draw anywhere close to those numbers. The permit application Comedy Central filed to stage this event anticipates a crowd of 60,000. A good chunk of that group -- about 10,000 -- are to arrive via the Huffpo Shuttle, a fleet of 200 buses that Huffington Post publisher Ariana Huffington is paying for, which would put about 10,000 people at the rally.

(See a gallery of photos of historic crowds on the Mall here.)

The U.S. Park Police in the past 14 years has provided crowd estimates only once -- for the inauguration of Barack Obama last year. (National Park Service officials said they wanted to know whether it broke the previous record set by the 1965 swearing-in of Lyndon B. Johnson.) In 1996, Congress forced the Park Police to stop estimating crowd sizes after organizers of the Million Man March threatened to sue the agency for saying that 400,000 people had attended the 1995 event, a far smaller turnout than the organizers' own million-plus claim.

''It just got to be so controversial. We get a bunch of people who call us names and say we lie about how many people were there. We decided it serves no benefit for us . . . it is not in our own best interest'' to make a count, then-Park Police spokesman Maj. Robert H. Hines told the Richmond Times Dispatch at the time.

Last year, controversy erupted over the size of a Tea Party rally on the Mall. Supporters of the rally threw out numbers as high as 2 million; an unofficial estimate by local authorities ran closer to 70,000. To back up their estimate, Tea Party-friendly bloggers posted an aerial photo of a packed National Mall. The only trouble was that the picture had been taken years earlier -- before the 2004 construction of the National Museum of the American Indian, which is missing from the photo.

Since the inauguration, the Park Police have gone back into retirement from the crowd counting business, as the outgoing voice mail message of Park Service spokesman David Schlosser made clear prior to the Beck event: "We do not provide crowd estimates. Any you may hear may not be attributed to the Park Police or the National Park Service."

Crowd estimating is an inexact science that dates back to the 1960s, according to Steve Doig, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It originated with journalism professor Herbert Jacobs. From his office at the University of California at Berkeley, Jacobs had a clear view of the plaza below where protestors liked to gather during the Vietnam War. Using the plaza as a laboratory of sorts, he came up with a loose methodology that boils down to how many people you can squeeze into a square foot of space. In packed situations, a person might occupy 2.5 square feet of space. In less congested situations, a person might occupy 10 square feet of space. Looking at aerial photographs, measuring the square footage covered by people, and how dense the crowd is, can yield a rough estimate. Depending on density, a crowded National Mall can hold between 1.5 million and 3 million people.

How important is it to you to get an accurate crowd estimate? Does the number attached to a demonstration lend the event credibility even more than the message might? What methods do you think journalists should use to report crowd estimates? Is it inevitable that the organizers' claim will be dramatically larger than estimates by neutral sources? Come ahead with your thoughts on the comment board below, and if you dare, include your prediction/estimate of the crowd at the Colbert-Stewart performance.

(Editor's note: It's much easier to count crowds at a march than at a speech or demonstration because a team of reporters can position themselves at a single funnel point along a march and literally hand-count the crowd. Counting a sprawling mass of people, such as below the Lincoln Memorial, is harder and there are generally two primary ways to do it: 1) Use aerial photos and divide the area into grids. 2) Station people at key points and walk through the crowd doing a hand-count. Neither is fool-proof, but both can give good estimates.--Marc Fisher)

Portions of this post appeared in an Aug. 30 post about the crowd at the Beck rally.

By Annys Shin  | November 1, 2010; 2:24 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism , More on the story, The inside story  
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LBJ's 1965 inaugueration was huge because he had just signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law.

Posted by: blasmaic | October 30, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

'Does the number attached to a demonstration lend the event credibility even more than the message might?'

Yes, it does because, particularly in our social-media saturated world, it takes time, planning, finances, an opinion, and most notably - effort, to attend any public function. Easy enough for those in proximity, but accounting for the distances people will travel to voice their opinions at these events implies the effectiveness of the message.

However, do the head-counters discount those who merely attend for spectacle or to be seen on television?

Posted by: loricerny | October 30, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

For Glenn Beck's rally I'm going with the 87000 (with a +/- error margin of 9000) crowd attendance estimate. The independent company hired by ABC studied hi-res aerial photos of Beck's rally and have done similar crowd estimates for Homeland Security in the past. The other crowd estimates for Beck's rally were completely anecdotal.

Hopefully ABC will hire the same company for the Stewart/Colbert rally. I'm curious :)

Posted by: mjp88 | October 30, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

>>"Will Stewart and Colbert measure up to Glenn Beck?"<<

"Measure up?" ... Why would one even want to "measure up" to misguided faith based opinions?

Posted by: allons | October 30, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Not only is this "moderate" rally the top story, but the entire Washington post website has been overtaken by this event. There are 14 headlines in the "rally headline" section and 10 rally opinion pieces in the rally section of WAPO's site. Way down, near the bottom of the page is a piece about an Indonesian volcano eruption- I guess that isn't news.

Today the Washington Post has completely eliminated any credibility they may have had left as a "newspaper".

Many people do not appreciate having propaganda shoved down their throats like this. When the newspapers, the TV stations, and the celebrities do this the message is essentially "vote Democrat because we told you to." That send me running the other way.

Posted by: jeff20 | October 30, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I think there were approx 87,000 at th Beck rally and would estimate the turnout for the Rally to Restore Sanity to be somewhere in the 300,000 - 500,000 range. Having witnessed many crowds on the mall and the traffice created by these crowds, I am confident in my estimate.
Driving into DC this morning and witnessing what is there have me convinced that this is quite a crowd!

Posted by: dkoonce1 | October 30, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

The question should be are they measuring up to political humorist Will Rogers.
Sterling Greenwood/Aspen

Posted by: AspenFreePress | October 30, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

YOu've got to love it that the TEA Party lied about the crowd size.. and were STUPID about it too.

Posted by: newagent99 | October 30, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

perhaps the post has so much coverage of the event because it is one of the most significant happenings in our fair city in the past 5 years, along with Beck's rally and the Obama inauguration...

couldn't be that they're reporting news that is of interest to their readership. better call it propoganda instead.

Posted by: j762 | October 30, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Just as the msm dwowplayed and/or totally ignored the anti Iraq war rallies, the enormous crows at this rally are being dismissed as 'tens of thousands' or, ridiculously, being compared, rather than contrasted to the Beck spectacle. This was a HUGE turnout, as the photos show. The crowds spilled over to every side and took up far more than the allotted space. The DC subways were overtaxed and some people waited nearly an hour for a ticket to the mall area. This was the real America...the caring, compassionate, all inclusive people who don't carry hate posters or promote the lies they are fed by their manipulators. No understatements will change the facts.

Posted by: Regavra | October 30, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

The conditions drove excess attendees away. Not everyone arrived at the same time, and some left because of the crowds while others were still arriving. As those around me started asking almost immediately, what is the point of staying (once you have seen the funny signs) when you can't hear or see anything? Some of those nice empty squares of unoccupied lawn with the "keep off the grass" signs did open up (officially or not) after a bit, which at least meant those who intended a picnic could have one instead of standing in the crowded gravel parts, but if you weren't near the front then you still could not hear. Only someone who took the semi-fake rally seriously would hang around out of a stubborn insistence on being counted.

Posted by: EricB2 | October 30, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

This was one of the biggest crowds I've seen in DC. It took one hour to walk on 7th St. from Independence to Constitution! Had no problems at all -- everyone was friendly and quite "sane."

Posted by: ARAinVA | October 30, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Wow, Jeff20. You are a living example of why people like you shouldn't be allowed to vote until you learn to read. Did you LOOK at the Post for the three days before and after the Beck nonsense? Because there was just as much coverage if not more.

The coverage of the Beck event was actually flattering, as the coverage treated it as news/important/indicative of something crucial. At least a third of the coverage of this event focuses on its origins in a comedy show.

You are an embarrassment to the corporate owners of TeaParty Inc. Or perhaps you're just sad that you and your fellow ignoramuses are outnumbered? Hmm. Tough call.

Posted by: Sanya2135 | October 30, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

As several had noted, the crowd size was probably somewhat underestimated by people who were leaving at around the same time that a lot of people were still arriving. Starting a bit after noon, it took me about 45 minutes to get onto a train at Silver Spring and the platforms at the stations we passed through were jammed. I have no idea how many scores of people were hoping to take the S2, S4, or 70 buses instead of the train.

Posted by: edallan | October 31, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

There seems to be a contest: Beck vs Sanity. Perhaps the Washington Metro could be "the decider" by asking how many metro riders there were on both days. I am sure the trains were packed for both, but ridership had to be greater on one of those days. Another way might be to take areal photos of each rally and overlay them and see which sprawl was larger (taking into account the reflecting pool at the Beck rally). And the winner is .....

Posted by: tomhill1 | October 31, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse

All I know is that we couldn't _move_ and that was on the sidewalks and side streets... getting onto actual mall grass was nearly impossible. We managed near the end, trying to get a vantage point of a jumbo-tron, but we ended up just enjoying the novel experience of knowing how a sardine must feel. I've never experienced anything like it on the National Mall.

Posted by: Krista_L | October 31, 2010 2:37 AM | Report abuse

I believe an earlier post stated ABC for the Beck numbers. I believe it was CBS,and they used the same crowd estimation firm,,to report the Stewart/Colbert crowd at 215,000. So basically,whatever the real number,it would appear that Comedy Central beat Beck by twice the numbers. ABC would never spring for any extras like independent crowd estimate,would they? Disney is too cheap.

Posted by: JackAcidSocietyMember | October 31, 2010 5:22 AM | Report abuse

There were at least twice as many people at the Glenn Beck rally - very possibly three times as many. NBC News put the number at 300,000; Sky News estimated 500,000. I have seen estimates as high as 650,000. The Comedy Central rally had many fewer attendees.

Posted by: LouFr | October 31, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse

I am not sure what rally Jeff20 is talking about or if he is just criticizing something he did not watch, but I watched it on TV from beginning to end and not only did I not see any place where they said to vote Democratic, but they did not even tell people to get out and vote (although I personally think they should have).

It is interesting to see that he equates a rally for sanity with voting for Democratic candidates.

As for crowd estimates, it looked like one of the larger crowds I can remember seeing there. It seems like there there must be a PhD thesis somewhere for a person who could come up with a computerized method for crowd counting from areial shots. Maybe the news organizations could fund such a study. Clearly, as Steward satirizd yesterday, people running any such thing overestimate it. Opponents downplay it.

Posted by: TomfromNJ1 | October 31, 2010 6:11 AM | Report abuse

I believe an earlier post stated ABC for the Beck numbers. I believe it was CBS,and they used the same crowd estimation firm,,to report the Stewart/Colbert crowd at 215,000. So basically,whatever the real number,it would appear that Comedy Central beat Beck by twice the numbers. ABC would never spring for any extras like independent crowd estimate,would they? Disney is too cheap.

Posted by: JackAcidSocietyMember | October 31, 2010 6:12 AM | Report abuse

Clearly, no number estimates have been published except for the amount anticipated on the Park Service permit. Colbert/Liebowicz didn't measure up to Beck, otherwise crowd numbers would have been trumpeted. The largest crowd ever to gather was 9/12/09, which appeared to be well over one million.

Posted by: ecartr5 | October 31, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

If the mall can hold between 1.5 to 3 million, then I'd say the count is in the millions. We were packed in, standing shoulder to shoulder on 7th street. In fact, we were packed so tight that we wound up leaving because I didn't feel comfortable in a crowd so densely packed. As we left, we realized that there were still people trying to get in. The police had the streets blocked all the way up to E street, and the streets were packed with people trying to get on to the mall.

Posted by: wsa3210 | October 31, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

Did any of the news organizations get an aerial photograph? I’d love to see one.

Posted by: wsa3210 | October 31, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

What we're all really interested in is a comparison of the two events. For that we don't need to know the actual attendance. A comparison of overhead shots should be fairly easy and definitive.

Of course, this is all for "bragging rights." It really doesn't matter much, in two days we will get the only numbers that really mean anything.

Posted by: scoogy | October 31, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I thought this was an article on opposing crowd sizes and "measuring up" not how previous crowds were estimated and of course the gratuitous slap at "Tea Party" rallies where unidentified people submitted unnamed photos to unnamed entities for publication in unnamed media. I think I would be surprised if the ComPost was ever balanced.

Measuring up? Let's look back at the Beck rally and the pics featured today in the pub. Both seemed to be having a good time and it would be impossible to estimate crowd size of 10/30 rally as most shots were too focused on the small area in front of the camera. The difference I see is the frivolity (nothing wrong with that) and flippancy and sarcasm on a wide range of topics in the signage (absent in the Beck rally), none of them to be taken seriously.
Cool Beans. A couple of comedians got a few (fill in the blank) people to get onto rented buses and go to the mall to act silly. I wonder if the ComPost will run a week or more of slanted hit pieces on this rally and smear Stewart and Colbert daily. I doubt it.

Posted by: theduck6 | October 31, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

It was so crowded up close that by noon the only area to enter the Mall itself was at 7th St and Indep. Even on the other side of 7th by the Hirshhorn it was too crowded I moved away several times...falling over folks sitting on blankets or baby strollers or dogs was not acceptable. Unfortunately, there were no sound systems beyond 7th St.Smart Rally/March people should alway bring a transistor radio to hear anywhere.C span radio and other stations carried the entire program!! "kids" who sat on the Hirshhorn wall around the sculpture garden were asked to get down. There were not enough guards hired to protect the Hirshhorn grounds and outdoor sculpture.Hundreds of folks came from the Lenfant and Smithsonian Metro stations around 1 and 1:30 pm. Many people walked or rode bikes to the Rally.The American Indian Museum also got a lot of garden damage. It was a wonderful day, but many more people attended than were expected. Also, the Hirshhorn did have 4 outdoor potties with long lines waiting. They were around the pool with fountain under the interior walkway. The day was full of fun and fellowship - a real mix of a crowd including as many older people as younger. No one can compare Beck and God to Colbert and Stewart.

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | October 31, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Said LouFr:

"There were at least twice as many people at the Glenn Beck rally - very possibly three times as many. NBC News put the number at 300,000; Sky News estimated 500,000. I have seen estimates as high as 650,000. The Comedy Central rally had many fewer attendees."

I'm not completely convinced by your rigorous statistical analysis. I have seen estimates for yesterday's rally as high as 6 billion, which is about 9231 times the Beck event numbers (assuming that 650K is correct). Also, glad to see you cite Sky News without a hint of irony. Even though it's a Rupert "I own Fox News" Murdoch outfit, there's probably no chance that they would "exaggerate" to promote their own agenda.

Anyway, as Stewart said, attendance isn't the only way to gauge a rally's success. The other criterion is color, and anyone who saw both rallies knows that both were overwhelmingly white. Estimates put the number of people of color at Beck's rally at -413, while yesterday's event included just two hundred million people of color. So, Sanity > Beck on all criteria that matter.

Go Team Truthiness!

Posted by: privacy5 | October 31, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Yes, because - as everybody knows - white people are bad. Good thinking.

Posted by: LouFr | October 31, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

Who cares about the total number of people? I just wish there was a way to compare the IQ of the two groups.

Posted by: rww549 | November 1, 2010 2:09 AM | Report abuse

Who cares who had the most people? (Stewart probably did) I just wish there was a way to compare the average IQ of the two groups.( for the beck group, that means how smart)

Posted by: rww549 | November 1, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse

The only reliable count is Metro. Metro said over 800,000 people went through the turnstiles on Saturday. Subtract out "normal ridership" for a non-federal holiday Saturday afternoon, and divide by two, you'll get 250,000+ rally attendance. This does not count the people who walked, or somehow managed to find an open parking garage 10 blocks from the Mall. Yes, it was overwhelmingly white. It was also overwhelmingly YOUNG. And it was at least three times the size of "The Beckening" at the Lincoln Memorial in August.

Posted by: EAHarrison | November 1, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I was at the sanity rally between 4th and 7th streets (the back of the stage was at 3rd street) and the crowd was much denser than the photos I saw of the Beck rally - there was no room for a chair or blanket in the Sanity rally for 2 blocks at least going back from the stage whereas at the Beck rally, people by the reflecting pool had lots of room.

But, every July 4th, there are a lot more people to watch the fireworks, not just on the mall from the Capitol to the Wash. Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, but in West Potomac park and into Arlington and even in boats on the river.

Posted by: swatter | November 1, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

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