In his first appearance in the White House briefing room since President Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered an indignant statement Saturday night condemning the media’s coverage of the inauguration crowd size, and accusing the press of “deliberately false reporting.”
Standing next to a video screen that showed the crowd from President Trump’s vantage point, Spicer insisted that media outlets had “intentionally framed” their photographs to minimize its size. After attacking journalists for sharing unofficial crowd-size estimates—“no one had numbers,” he said—he proceeded to offer a categorical claim of his own. “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” he said, visibly outraged. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
As my colleague Robinson Meyer explained on Friday, modern crowd-counting methods can be laborious efforts. Steve Doig, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, has provided estimates of crowds at past inaugurals, and is well-versed in the challenges they present. “There's no turnstiles; you didn't have to buy tickets ... so the standard metrics for measuring a contained crowd are not available," he said. "The fallback is overhead imagery.” That allows experts to estimate the density of the crowd, and multiply it by the area it covers, to produce “a reality-based estimate of the crowd.” Based on the photographs available in the media showing the part of the crowd that was on the mall, he said, “the claim that this is the largest ever is ludicrous on its face.”
The only numbers Spicer cited were ridership numbers from WMATA, the D.C. public-transit system. “We know that 420,000 people used D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural,” he said. But the figures Spicer offered were not consistent with those provided by WMATA officials, who told the Washington Post that 570,557 riders used the Metro system between its 4 a.m. opening and its midnight closure on Friday. That number falls short of both President Obama’s 2009 and 2013 inaugurations, which saw 1.1 million trips and 782,000 trips respectively.
Preliminary Nielsen figures also show that Trump’s inauguration received fewer average TV viewers in the United States than Obama’s first inauguration. The Los Angeles Times reported that 30.6 million viewers tuned in for Friday’s ceremonies, 19 percent below the 37.8 million viewers who watched in 2009. The figures still place Trump’s inauguration ahead of Obama’s second inauguration, as well as the first ceremonies for President Clinton and both President Bushes. Ronald Reagan holds the record for inauguration viewership, after 41.8 million viewers watched his swearing-in ceremony in 1981.
As Spicer later correctly noted, the National Park Service does not offer official crowd estimates. The agency abandoned the practice after receiving criticism for its low estimate of the Million Man March in 1995. But independent estimates, and other publicly available evidence, indicates the crowd was smaller than the one that appeared for President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Keith Still, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, told The New York Times that the crowd on the mall itself was about a third the size it had been in 2009. Photos taken from the Washington Monument facing towards the Capitol show a visibly smaller audience compared to similar images taken in 2009, images from the parade route showed largely vacant stands and stretches of empty sidewalk, and Washington mass-transit officials reported far comparatively lower ridership figures for the city’s Metro system.
Spicer did not take questions. He also did not address the far larger crowds in Washington, D.C., on Saturday that took part in the Women’s March on Washington.
Doig, the journalism professor, cautioned, “take all partisan estimates of crowd size with a grain of salt. Crowd size has become a badge of honor or shame depending on who's wielding it. This has gone on for decades, claiming exceptionally large crowds or claiming really the crowd was tiny." He defended the role of the media in adjudicating these disputes. “Let the partisans on either side claim whatever they want about the size of the crowd," he said, “but somebody needs to produce an independent estimate.”