Dissatisfaction on the Marches

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Covering demonstrations on the Mall is a thankless job. Journalists know two things about these events: Organizers often inflate the number of participants, and there will be complaints no matter how a demonstration is covered or displayed.

Woe to the reporter who tries to estimate the crowd; unfortunately, law enforcement officials refuse to make crowd estimates anymore.

Several readers complained that the story on the Jan. 22 antiabortion march was underplayed and that the Jan. 27 antiwar march was overplayed. John Billing of Ocean Pines, Md., was succinct: "Last week, The Post covered the pro-life march in Washington on Page A10. Today, the Post covered the antiwar march in Washington in the middle of Page 1, above the fold. No bias? B.S."

Some questioned the lack of specific crowd estimates. Reporters safely said only that both marches drew "tens of thousands." One woman left me a voice mail that said: "Hundreds of thousands of people came for the March for Life." Another reader said: "The only time the media doesn't estimate the crowd like this is when it is nowhere near what they predicted." Organizers of the antiabortion march did not give an estimate, but the antiwar organizers -- United for Peace and Justice -- said on their Web site that 500,000 people were on the Mall. No one I talked to thought anywhere near that many were there.

It used to be simple to get an official crowd estimate from the District police, the Capitol Police or the National Park Service. The Park Service used aerial photos from helicopters or the Washington Monument and a grid system -- count the people in one part of the picture and multiply that by the number of blocks filled.

Executive Editor Len Downie said The Post used Washington Monument photos to count Mall crowds. "We older hands have a feel for this by now, and one or more of us would walk down to check out the crowds ourselves. The first Million Man March was the last I saw to nearly fill the entire Mall, which meant it was definitely hundreds of thousands, while demonstrations that fill up to a few blocks of the Mall are in the tens of thousands."

Reporters said that both marches were a few blocks long. I looked through all the march photos from Post and wire photographers to see if one gave a clue. No luck. Joe Elbert, assistant managing editor for photography, said, "Generally, we attempt to set a sense of place and sense of crowd but nothing that would be of value for crowd estimates."

The Post cannot fly a helicopter over the Mall because of anti-terrorism rules. And the Park Service was basically forbidden by Congress to make crowd estimates after controversies over its counts, especially after the Million Man March on Oct. 16, 1995. District and Capitol Police spokesmen followed the Park Service's lead.

One police official who was at both demonstrations told me on deep background -- forgive me, I'm using an anonymous source -- that the protest crowds were about the same size and looked to be fewer than 50,000 each. Park Service officials said United for Peace and Justice and March for Life representatives both applied for march permits for crowds of 50,000.

David Barna, National Park Service chief of public affairs, wishes crowd estimates were still done because of their historic value. He is right. It was a valuable public service, and Congress was wrong to outlaw it. The record crowd on the Mall was 1.2 million for Lyndon Johnson's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1965.

As for display in The Post, the antiabortion march is always on Jan. 22, the date of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that led to legal abortion. This is the 34th anniversary of that decision and not a reason to put the event on Page 1 in my book.

The controversy surrounding the Iraq war, the turnover in Congress and President Bush sending more troops to Iraq made the antiwar march worth Page 1. The Post has been criticized in the past for underplaying antiwar marches.

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