I’m wondering if I need to stop paying attention to politics for a while. It was a beautiful weekend, and while checking e-mail Saturday I surfed over to Memeorandum to see what was going on with the teabaggers. Michelle Malkin’s blog proclaimed the march at 2 million strong. I rolled my eyes, shut down my browser and went back downstairs to think about what to do with the pattypan squash I bought at the farmer’s market.
I’m one of the worst crowd-estimators in journalism, in keeping with the long tradition of people who are good with words being stupid with numbers. I always avoided making crowd estimates in stories I wrote, and when I was pressed to do so, fudged with time-tested phrases like “a packed hearing room” or “scores,” or else found a less numerically challenged source to give me a number. But even I know 2 million is plain and simple balderdash. Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com explains how the whopper came to be — the very short answer: Someone lied to Malkin — and adds:
Malkin herself did not lie; she merely repeated a lie. It does not particularly call into question her character. It does, however, call into question her judgment. The reason is that if there had in fact been 2 million protesters in Washington yesterday, there would have been no need to lie about it — the magnitude of the protests would have been self-evident. I was in Washington for the inauguration, an event at which there really were almost 2 million people present — and let me tell you, it was a Holy Mess. Hotels, charging double or treble their usual rates, were booked weeks in advance. Major stations on the Metro system were shut down for hours at a time. The National Guard was brought in. At least 3,000 people got stuck in a tunnel. Essentially the entirety of the National Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, was dotted with onlookers. Heaps of trash were left behind. The entire city was basically a warzone for a period of about 20 hours, from midnight through mid-evening.
“It does, however, call into question her judgment.” That’s it in a nutshell. That’s the problem with journalism as practiced by mere mortals, but it’s especially the problem with mortals who are proudly partisan, who scoff at “objectivity” as a fiction, etc. I’m not one of those journalists — and lately, I should add, I don’t consider myself much of one; I feel like I’m on a floe that has broken away from the main icecap and is steadily drifting away — who worries what will happen to Journalism when all the newspapers have been hollowed out or killed. That’s because I already know (and excuse me if I’ve said this before; I think I’ll be saying it for a long time). We’re headed into an age when we will flock to the media source that flatters our own prejudices with a unique set of facts. We had that for a long time, in fact; although nearly everybody here is too young to remember when even middling cities had multiple dailies to reflect every reading niche, from labor to plutocrats. You could even make the argument that the vaunted value of Fairness and Objectivity, which in J-school you learn was handed down from Mt. Olympus, is really just a cold-eyed business tactic, that once the Workers Daily and the Plutocracy Times folded, the net needed to be cast a lot wider and the masthead slogan changed from Screwing the Proles since 1851 to Shining the Light of Truth.
Most reputable crowd estimates put it in the “tens of thousands,” perhaps as many as 100,000. The Daily Mail in London, relying on “Mail Foreign Service,” went with “up to two million.” Damn liberal media.
This isn’t really about politics, anyway; it’s about numeric shenanigans. I love Silver’s blog because he’s that rarity, a genius with numbers and more than competent with words. I love stories that make a splash because someone challenged numeric conventional wisdom. One of the Denver papers won a Pulitzer in the ’80s for pointing out that the numbers of missing and abducted children were wildly inflated, that if every face on the milk carton belonged to a kid who’d been snatched by a stranger, virtually everyone in the country would know someone whose child had suffered such a fate. And yet, we repeat these whoppers over and over.
Oh, well. It was a lovely weekend. Spent a chunk of it at a local block party, which featured a DJ. I took a moment to marvel how it only took a cute dance to turn “Y.M.C.A.” from a tune about anonymous gay sex in a public gymnasium (as Garry Trudeau amusingly put it), to a song adorable toddlers tumble to while their parents look on and snap pictures. Which Village Person are you? I think I’m the construction worker.
If a woman this size shook her tennis racquet at me, I don’t know if I’d feel in fear for my life, but I might tremble a little. What a whiny baby; she deserved to lose that one. And what is it about tennis that seems to breed these uniquely awful tantrum-tossers?
And speaking of rude…
So another Monday begins? The Magic 8 ball says yes.