DC ‘Tea Party’ Crowd Estimate: How Did Thousands Become Millions?

ABC's Yunji de Nies reports from Washington:

There’s been a lot of debate over just how many people attended the 912 March in Washington on Saturday. On Friday, organizers from Freedom Works, the group that planned the event, told ABC News that they were permitted for 3000 people, but that 30,000 had signed up via their website.

Then late Friday night, a memo from Doug Thornel, an aide to Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), began making its way across the web. The memo warned that the rally could be much bigger than some had anticipated. It read, “It looks like Saturday’s event is going to be a huge gathering, estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to 2 million people.” Thornel cited several blogs including mediamatters.org, NYTimes.com, GOPExiles.com and 912dc.org.

The next morning, I arrived on the Mall, near the Capitol steps, for a Weekend Good Morning America report about the day ahead. At 7am, there were very few people there and I reported than tens of thousands were expected. The rally was to begin about a mile away at Freedom Plaza. I made my way there and met up with our camera crew and producer. The crowd was thick around 9am, and as the morning progressed, grew substantially. I tweeted about what I was seeing, and maintained throughout that I would not rely on my own eyeball estimate, but instead defer to DC officials for a head count.

The problem is that Park Police and Capitol Police do not release such estimates and have not for years. The reasoning is that those giving out those numbers became too political. Whether on the right or the left, organizers repeatedly accused officials of underestimating the crowds. The only official agency to do so that day was DC police, which tweeted (under the handle @dcfireems) at 11:43am “UPDATE - several people treated for injury and illness on the Mall nothing extraordinary unofficial crowds 60,000-75,000 UNOFFICIAL.” We called the agency, which confirmed those numbers.

Later that afternoon, Matt Kibbe, the President of Freedom Works, took the stage and declared that ABC News was reporting that between one and 1.5 million people were on the Mall. By any standard, millions would be impossible to confuse with tens of thousands. Remember that officials estimate 1.8 million attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20th, and there was barely any room to stand. I walked the length of Pennsylvania Avenue the marchers, and was able to move easily through the crowd. Though it would be obvious to anyone on the Mall at that time that there was no way there were a million people there, with Kibbe’s announcement, the Internet lit up. Blogs and tweets began citing the number, inflating it to as many as two million.

We at ABC News were baffled. Where were these numbers coming from? We checked with all reporters on the ground, and with all platforms (broadcast, radio, dot.com) but everyone had been sticking to reporting in the “tens of thousands.” We contacted Freedom Works, which took nearly 24 hours to correct their mistake, but did so in this statement, from Kibbe himself:

“From the stage I cited ABC news estimating the crowd at the March on Washington at 1.5 million. I also said “with all due respect to our friends in mainstream media, we need our own independent head count. Trust but verify.” With a dead IPhone, I had been shown tweets from a number of different folks behind the stage citing the ABC estimate. They didn’t say it. I regret misrepresenting the network, as their coverage that day was fair and honest.”

In the same statement, Kibbe writes, “The crowd was HUGE. Any reporter that claims thousands, or even tens of thousands of attendees was either not there or was willfully misreporting the significance of the event.”

By focusing so much on the numbers, I think he’s right, many are missing the significance of the event. On Sunday morning, ABC’s chief political correspondent, George Stephanopoulos said, “You can’t sneeze at tens of thousands of people coming out on a Saturday afternoon to March on the Capitol. That is significant. Even if it represents a minority, it can show a strongly motivated minority.”

See our report from Sunday’s Good Morning America below.

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