Does Size Matter? The Impact of the 912 Rally.

Don't mind Sarah Posner -- She's just "part of the government-controlled press." From sarahposner on Vimeo.

As I rode the Metro down to the Mall yesterday, the size rumors had already begun. (Yes, even the anti-government cranks -- who said things like "when the government takes over, everything goes downhill" -- extolled the virtues of the, ahem, government-run public transportation system in D.C.) Blackberries abuzz, the first rumor I heard was that the estimated crowd was not the anticipated 100,000, but closer to 300,000.

The day wore on, indeed the crowd grew, but the size rumor grew exponentially larger. So large that the march organizer, FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe, claimed onstage that ABC (which many participants accused, along with all the other networks and cable stations save Fox, of being controlled by the government) had estimated the crowd at between one and one and half million people. Problem was, ABC never said any such thing. It had reported 70,000, based on D.C. Fire Department estimates. Later in the day, Michelle Malkin claimed it was two million -- even more preposterous.

Still, I would not underestimate the impact of what happened yesterday, for three reasons: first, the media under- and overplay; second -- partly a result of the first -- the appeal of the overall message to people who weren't there; and the remarkable resilience and organizing power of the conservative infrastructure.

The media: both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran the story on today's front page. That could be seen as overplay, if the size of the crowd was the same as the size of the crowds at dozens of college football games yesterday. More people probably watched the U.S. Open than followed the Mall activities at home. Yet, if the march was a signal of conservative resurgence, it's worth covering, isn't it? Well, yes, but the question is how.

The thrust of the rally was that the country is turning socialist, a premise so absurd it barely merits serious consideration -- but given the attention the rally got, clearly merits serious debunking. Yet the Times lede described the march as "a culmination of a summer-long season of protests that began with opposition to a health care overhaul and grew into a broader dissatisfaction with government." And the Post led with, "Tens of thousands of conservative protesters, many complaining that the nation is racing toward socialism, massed outside the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, angrily denouncing President Obama's health-care plan and other initiatives as threats to the Constitution." Although sticking to the "tens of thousands" estimate, the Post went on: "The huge turnout indicated the growing frustration with Obama among conservative activists and showed that his nationally televised speech Wednesday did little to move his political opponents on health care."

That's the underplay: the protesters are frustrated, dissatisfied. Their beef is with "government." (As they stood on one of the most precious pieces of public real estate in the land. But never mind that.) The bottom line, this coverage tells us, is that they have a legitimate gripe (even as the Post noted some Republicans fretted that participants might be seen as too extreme.)

More on "dissatisfaction with government" after the jump.

--Sarah Posner

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