Of numbers & mendacity

The way to estimate crowd size that I was taught goes like this. Go to the highest place you can reach, create an approximate mental grid with the help of fixed objects, count the people in a few squares to get the approximate density, then multiply by the number of squares that look filled. You will need to know the principles of perspective if you don’t have a helicopter. You will get a number so rough that any two people using the same method are likely to give vastly different estimates. But you could get a large number of people to provide estimates, then average those. This will produce a number no more reliable, but slightly more plausible.

You want accurate? Carefully fence and patrol the perimeter, and sell tickets to get in.

Photographs can lie, and can be made to lie shamelessly, as I learnt from practising print journalism, which sometimes involved travelling in a posse with the other hacks, the photographers and TV cameramen (under intense peer pressure). Almost everything presented pictorially has been staged. The exceptions, too, have been carefully selected and cropped by professional editors (under their own intense peer pressure). They are trying for some emotional edge.

That is among the reasons photographs replaced engravings in the papers, more than a century ago. It was not a mere technological advance, as the sweet young things are taught in the J-schools. At the start, reproducing photos cost more money. Technology is developed for a market: to supply what people seem most likely to buy. In this case, the press lords wanted photography: it made what they were selling seem more immediate, more “truthy.” The improvements in technology followed.

Here is an example of journalistic fraud, more egregious than usual, but not by much. The CNN television network juxtaposed two aerial photographs from the same angle, one showing the National Mall full of people, the other showing most of it empty. They explained that Picture A showed the crowd for Obama’s first inauguration, Picture B for Trump’s. They didn’t mention that Picture A was taken while Obama was being sworn in, Picture B three hours before Trump was. It was the “proof” that Obama had outdrawn Trump, picked up and enthusiastically hustled by all other liberal media — and a knowing misrepresentation. But it achieved its purpose. Not one in a hundred who saw it will ever learn that they were had.

I fell for it myself, at first, and had I been on air as a talking head, would have explained it by mentioning that the inaugurations are held in Washington, DC, which votes overwhelmingly Democrat. How could Trump possibly match Obama’s crowds in that town — even after he had outdrawn Hillary Clinton by huge undisputed margins at election rallies across the rest of the country? (Of course, Trump didn’t waste any time in California.) When Trump’s press secretary disputed the comparison, I winced. “Why are you bleeding credibility, Spicer?” I mumbled to myself. The media he was disputing with, hooted him down. Yet, now that CNN has been exposed (with almost no press coverage), we find that the inauguration crowds were, by their own later footage, somewhere in the vicinity of equal.

The replacement of the truth with a plausible lie is “normal” among interested parties. Truth — even minor factual truth — requires a certain chastity, possible even to an interested party, but requiring intelligence and character. I could explain why the media have no interest in truth, but it would be tedious. In the end, the argument would come down to chastity: they don’t have any. And in the further absence of intelligence and character, they are unlikely to grow some.

Other media stories breeze by. For instance, rather than show the crowds at the March for Life, today, the Washington Post was reporting that the Metro showed no exceptional ridership spike. (It was simply at capacity.) Or we’re told of the “mass resignation” of (four) staff in the State Department. (Immediately after they were fired.) And so on. There are days when I have looked at the front page of the New York Times, and known enough to see that every story on it is an intentional misrepresentation.

With practice one may read between the lines, as in the old days with Pravda, to guess what has happened. (Example: “There has been no riot in Gorki.” Translation: “There are huge and continuing riots in Gorki.”) If they say that “Trump is lying” about something, I can be reasonably certain he is telling the truth — at least on the point at issue.

I have no idea (yet) what were the comparative numbers for the March for Life today, versus the leftist Women’s March last Saturday in Washington, or parallel marches elsewhere. (We had a nice turnout of ditzy dames, of all sexes, shouting their obscenities up here in Toronto.) I do know that year after year, for more than four decades, the March for Life has been by far the largest public demonstration in Washington; that adults with their kids bus and fly from all over USA to be there; and have exhibited consistently dignified behaviour. Too, that it gets almost no media coverage; and that what little it gets is focused on a handful of noisy, often rude, pro-abortion counter-demonstrators. Whereas, the Women’s March last Saturday got wall-to-wall coverage on the networks; with camera angles chosen to suggest great numbers.

And yet, for all this, Big Joe is not confused. (Viral video here.)