270,000 Reasons not to Trust The Buffalo News

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 1/30/03

Things looked good at the outset.  The Buffalo News had finally covered a major anti-war rally above the fold on page one ( 1/19/03 ).  The reporting, by The News’ Jerry Zremski, initially seemed thorough and respectful, giving voice to the protestors while applauding their diversity and dedication.

The problem lies with what both demonstrators and politicians often identify as the most important aspect of any demonstration – the number of people who attended.  Was it a success or a failure?  This is where The News was suspiciously off by a factor of 10. 

Their January 19th headline, referring to the previous day’s Washington D.C. demonstration against the Bush Administration’s Iraq war, read: “30,000 in D.C. protest war plans.” They compared this turnout to what they described as 100,000 anti-war protestors who turned out for a similar demonstration in October (a number The News did not report at the time), giving the misleading impression that the anti-war movement is waning.  The opposite is true, with most reporters on the scene describing a rally many times the size of the October rally.  The math seems simple: If 100,000 people marched against the war in October, as The News now reports, and almost every witness on the ground at the January rally describes a rally that is clearly bigger than the previous one, isn’t it safe to say, conservatively, that there are more than 100,000 people there?  And since it is clearly visibly larger, with radio reporters describing a mass of people four miles long, then isn’t it safe to say there were many more than 100,000 people there?  Perhaps, conservatively, 150,000 people?  All of these numbers were reported on the radio a day before The News ran their incorrect numbers.

But it gets funkier.  The Washington rally was only one of dozens of demonstrations protesting Bush’s war simultaneously taking place in 38 countries, as well as American cities such as San Francisco , Chicago , Tampa , Tucson , Albuquerque and Portland , Oregon , where 20,000 people rallied.  From a historical perspective, this bottom up form of globalization is the real story of a day, with activists succeeding in creating a global grassroots movement that can potentially counteract the forces of corporate globalization.  There has never before been a unified global anti-war movement crossing so many political and cultural boundaries – and all of this before the war even officially begins.  But The News glossed over this movement, dispensing with it in one neat line, writing, “Protests stretched from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Moscow , but the Washington march was by far the largest, though it was much smaller than a similar event in October.” Here’s where the math gets real fuzzy.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports that police in that city estimated the attendance at their “smaller” anti-war rally to be approximately 150,000 people, while conceding that organizers’ estimates of 200,000 attendees could in fact be correct.  Estimates of the “smaller” rally being 200,000 people were already circulating when The News reported that the “larger” rally drew only 30,000 people. 

The News claims to have gotten their number from the D.C. police, who have come under repeated attack from many quarters for habitually undercounting attendance at rallies protesting government policies.  Even so, The Washington Post reports that D.C. police officials estimated the crowd at 200,000 people, with Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey quoted as saying, “It’s one of the biggest ones [rallies] we’ve had, certainly in recent times.”  For their part, The Post describes the event as “the largest anti-war demonstration here since the Vietnam era.”  One can assume that means it was bigger than last month’s rally. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “as many as 500,000 protestors rallied outside the capitol,” using an attendance figure also embraced by rally organizers who factored in inflow and outflow to calculate attendance for the whole day’s events.

To accurately cover this story, The News should have reported all of the available numbers as well as qualitative descriptions of the crowd.  If they insisted on having a number for their headlines, 300,000 would have been a safe bet, conservatively skewed to the lower end of the crowd estimates.  More accurate would be headlines reading “at least 200,000” or “As many as 500,000.” 

We now know that The News’ absurd estimate of 30,000 people represents a gross undercount, with the end product being front page misinformation, leaving Buffalonians in the dark about the powerful momentum of the anti-war movement.  At first glance, it seemed like a misplaced zero – 30 instead of 300. The lack of a correction, however, undermines the innocent mistake theory, leaving local media watchers to wonder, what the hell is going on at The News.  Though The News has a policy of not responding to ArtVoice columns, they owe it to their readership to explain themselves, either here, where we would gladly print their response, or in their own paper, where we eagerly await it.

The News also missed the boat by failing to cover the January 18th Toronto anti-war rally, which drew over 5,000 people.  Another 20,000 Canadians rallied in Montreal , joined by 15,000 more in Vancouver and 7,000 in Saskatoon .  In all, Canadians rallied against Bush’s war in 30 cities, creating a major story impacting Canadian-American relations that the border-conscious Buffalo News should have picked up.  The problem is that they are still in their tired old ignore the peace movement mode and are showing no signs of living up to their responsibilities as a newspaper.




copyright 2003

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