Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" drew one of the largest crowds in the recent history of Washington packing 11 city blocks of the National Mall and spilling over into side streets that were nearly impassable yet it was treated by the mainstream U.S. news media as something of an annoying joke.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times opted for front-page pictures of a handful of rally-goers pressed up against a fence, photos that could have been taken of a crowd numbering in the dozens rather than the hundreds of thousands.
There also was a great hesitancy to admit that Saturday's rally was much larger than Glenn Beck's highly touted event in August. Crowd estimates commissioned by CBS News and conducted by AirPhotosLive.com put Stewart's rally at 215,000, compared to Beck's 87,000.
However, the CBS estimate of Beck's rally drew angry claims from the Right that Beck's rally was many times larger than that. So, rather than face accusations of "liberal bias," the mainstream media folded its tent and went along with the Right's inflated estimates.
The opposite dynamic was at play for Stewart's rally. Though it appeared to be at least several times larger than Beck's, the U.S. news media shied away from any clear comparison. An NPR correspondent on Saturday timidly suggested that Stewart's rally was perhaps "a bit" larger than Beck's.
The New York Times article on Sunday observed that Stewart's crowd stretched along the Mall "almost to the Washington Monument" but gave that distance as "several long blocks" rather than actually counting the blocks.
Since the rally stage was set up along Third Street and since the Mall was filled with rally-goers at least to 14th Street, the Times might have done the math and told its readers that "several" in this case meant 11.
I also believe that a true estimate of the crowd on Saturday easily exceeded the CBS figure of 215,000. In the area where I was standing on Saturday, near Eighth Street, people were packed in more densely than I had experienced even during Barack Obama's Inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.
I asked a girl who had climbed up a tree what it looked like behind us and she said people were crowded in as far as she could see back toward the Washington Monument.
Sound and Sight Problems
But people in my area and farther back had trouble following what was happening on stage. The sound system and the TV monitors were set up for a crowd that would reach back only to about Seventh Street.
That meant that much of the crowd could only pick up bits and pieces of the dialogue and could see little of the visual gags onstage. There were recurring chants of "louder, louder."
Jon Stewart and his co-host Stephen Colbert did okay by expressing their semi-serious comedy routines in clear, short sound bites, but others like "Father Guido Sarducci" in his "benediction" were inaudible.
That led to a significant portion of the crowd peeling off and seeking other ways to follow the proceedings. And that is one of the reasons I think the CBS estimate of Saturday's crowd was too low. Much of the crowd dispersed onto nearby city streets.
One friend who couldn't hear or see the onstage proceedings told me he found a crowded bar where the flat-screen TVs were all dedicated to the rally. A group of European parliamentarians, in the United States to observe Tuesday's elections, gave up trying to shove their way onto the Mall and retreated to the nearby Newseum to watch the event on a large TV with other frustrated rally-goers.
I also grew frustrated unable to see or hear much so I began maneuvering off to the side streets that feed the Mall. Even after departing the Mall, I found the crowd densely packed on those side streets.