At a time when there should be national unity, a media war has erupted between the size of Obama's and Trump's, err, Inauguration Day crowds.
The size of the crowds is being hotly disputed as a flashpoint between the Democratic Party and its supportive media, who want to delegitimize the new president, and the Trump administration, which wants the symbolism of a massive crowd on the Washington mall to defy the opposition's narrative.
“I have a running war with the media,” Trump said, adding how he really feels, “They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
As with all narrative battles, imagery is often deployed by political operatives in an attempt to bolster support or to undermine one's opponents.
A viral image put out by the New York Times, and subsequently adopted by much of the media, has been utilized by his opposition as a way of demonstrating that Trump's crowd was substantially smaller than former President Obama's in 2009.
A number of things should be noted about these images, just for a matter of context:
- There are white tarps on the grounds of the Washington mall in the 2017 Trump Inauguration photo (right), while there none in the Obama photo (left).
- The weather for the Obama Inaugural Address was in the 20s, while Trump's address had weather in the 40s and scattered rain showers.
- The Trump Inaugural Address was given while the areas of the mall were blocked off by officials for stated security concerns, such as protesters.
- Due to the cloudy skies seen in the photo, there will likely be no conclusive satellite data for the Trump Inaugural Address.
According to 2009 address analysis, drawing from satellite data evaluated by crowd size analysts, former President Obama drew a record 1.8 million to the Washington mall. It was a historic event in the sense that no African American had been elected president before; this alone would draw numerous loyal crowds.
Politifact, in a piece blasting the Trump administration for a “pants on fire” lie, provided the following estimates:
Two major factors in Obama's favor for address turnout are the Democratic leanings of the D.C. metropolitan area, as well as support from the African American community in the area, which is immense.
All those explanations for a difference in audience sizes aside, determining Trump's Inauguration Day crowd attendance could turn out to be a bit trickier than Politifact claims.
A proxy comparison of the Obama and Trump Inaugural Addresses is the metro traffic for that day. CNN reported the estimate given by the Washington transit authority, or WMATA, that 193,000 trips had been taken as of 11 a.m. in 2009, while some 513,000 trips had been taken as of the same time on Inauguration Day 2017.
Further analysis provided by WaPo, and given by the WMATA, estimated that there a total of 571,000 metro riders this year, while there were 782,000 riders in 2009.
In terms of general public interest in seeing the event, one potential rough gauge is TV viewership. TVLine provided a ratings overview:
Friday’s coverage of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States amassed 30.6 million total viewers, Nielsen reports.
That tally — which accounts for live coverage from approximately 10 am to 6 pm ET, across ABC, CBS, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, CNBC, CNN, Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel, Galavision, HLN and MSNBC — falls 19 percent below the audience for Barack Obama’s own first swearing-in (37.8 million), on Jan. 20, 2009, when a quarter of all households tuned in.
In D.C., Obama’s 2009 inauguration drew an in-person crowd of 1.8 million, while Trump’s… well, we quite frankly may never really know.
While Trump's Inauguration Day address crowd will likely turn out to be below Obama's 1.8 million record attendance, the proxy numbers don't suggest anything close to one-fifth of the public interest in the event implied by a mean of Politifact's estimate.
In terms of tickets alone, 250,000 were distributed for the Trump Inaugural Address, which is approximately the same as past addresses. Then, there is attendance on the mall itself, which can be the majority for such an event; as noted above, there were sections closed off for Trump's address for security reasons.
Despite the lack of certainty over the exact size of the Inauguration Day in 2017, the Trump administration has bristled at suggestions that the size was meager, and has shot back that the crowd size was actually the largest ever.
On Saturday, the New York Times reported statements from both President Trump and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hotly disputing the media crowd estimates, while taking journalists to task for alleged deceptive practices.
As The New York Times reported of Trump's comments:
Mr. Trump also took issue with news reports about the number of people who attended his inauguration, complaining that the news media used photographs of “an empty field” to make it seem as if his inauguration did not draw many people.
“We caught them in a beauty,” Mr. Trump said of the news media, “and I think they’re going to pay a big price.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Friday responded with a claim that Trump had attracted “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” This is a claim the New York Times argued outright was “false.”
Spicer argued that the photographs were deceptively framed:
Mr. Spicer said photographs of the inaugural ceremonies were deliberately framed “to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall,” although he provided no proof of either assertion.
In addition, as reported by the Times, Spicer claimed that the purported media malpractice was an “attempt to sow divisions at a time when Mr. Trump was trying to unify the country, warning that the new administration would hold them to account.”
One unlikely figure to weigh in on the controversy is veteran Fox News anchor Brit Hume, who was in attendance on Inauguration Day. Hume claims that the photos being used by the media are deceptive for one particular reason:
Hume attached the New York Times story with the photo in question:
The Fox News reporter's tweet touched off a cascade of photo responses; a sample of the more provocative photos are posted below:
One interlocutor attempted to bring humor to the situation:
The battle of optics between the new White House and the media has begun. The issue, ultimately, is a symbolic one, and of far less significance for the fate of the country than what current President Trump does after Inauguration Day.
Using CNN's Gigapixel tool, one can get a much better picture of the Inauguration Day crowd at the time Trump is speaking.
Here is a shot of the crowd running up to the Washington Monument:
Now, let's zoom in to see those white sections that appear in the tweeted photo. What we find are sections that are blocked off by gates:
It appears Brit Hume could be right: The photos being spread comparing the Obama and Trump Inaugural Addresses seem to show the latter below peak attendance.