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There have been many instances of fake news in mainstream media of late.  Most of the time words are used to misrepresent reality, but pictures may also be used.

Recently the New York Times published an article comparing the sizes of the crowds attending Obama’s and Trump’s inaugurations.  The message of the Times article is that very few people supported Trump by attending the inauguration, and by inference Trump is an illegitimate president.


In reality the size of the inauguration crowd is irrelevant.  The only thing that matters is the results of the ballots cast in November, and Trump is the legitimate winner.  Therefore he is a legitimate President.  All else is noise.  Furthermore, crowd estimates – especially those based on photos – are easily manipulated and cannot be used as a ruler to measure anything, so this whole brouhaha is but a tempest in a teapot.

But there is a lesson to be learned from this tempest:  All is not as it looks.  We must research, question, evaluate, and judge carefully everything we hear through the media.  We must not blindly accept one position, but must seek multiple potentially conflicting sources to discern the truth.  So is the Times correct?

The New York Times used two photos to compare the size of the crowd at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and at Trump’s inauguration.  It appears the photos were selected to contrast Obama’s and Trump’s inaugurations.  The Mall appears to be packed with people at Obama’s inauguration and largely empty for Trump’s inauguration, implying a lack of support for the latter. Based on the photos, The Times estimates the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd to be only 1/3 of the Obama’s.  The Trump administration vehemently disagrees.  Which is correct?  There are several considerations clouding the issue:

  • Obama’s 2009 inauguration was truly historic: America’s first black President.  One would expect an unusually large number of people to attend.  Trump’s inauguration may be significant, perhaps historic even, but not a “first” of any kind.  One would expect only a “normal” or slightly larger than “normal” crowd.
  • Both photos presented in the Times were said to be taken 45 minutes before the inauguration. The Times notes that people were “still entering the National Mall” for Trump’s inauguration.  Therefore the picture does not represent the full extent of Trump’s crowd.  Since there were more severe security measures in place in 2017 than the previous inaugurations and it was raining, people likely would be arriving later than in previous years.
  • In fact, photos taken later (during Trump’s inaugural speech) indicate the presence of a much larger crowd filling the entire Mall to the Washington monument.
  • Sections of the mall were blocked off in 2017 – presumably for security reasons – causing empty spaces in the crowd. These blocked-off sections would reduce the capacity and make it appear that fewer were in attendance. Not so in 2009.   http://ijr.com/2017/01/783119-brit-hume-calls-bs-on-trump-and-obama-inauguration-pics-claims-theres-a-deceptive-trick-to-photos/?utm_campaign=morning-newsletter&utm_medium=owned&utm_source=email
  • The Mall was covered with a white tarp for Trump’s inauguration due to the rain, but not for Obama (no rain). The white tarp emphasizes empty spots; without the tarp empty spots just blend into the crowd.  Hence our eyes are fooled into estimating a larger crowd for the image without a tarp than with a tarp.  (This is similar to the illusion created in the image below. The line on the left appears longer, but both are exactly the same length.):


  • CNN reports Metro ridership as of one hour prior to the inauguration to be 193,000 in 2017 (Trump), 317,000 in 2013 (Obama), 513,000 in 2009 (Obama), and 197,000 in 2005 (Bush). Metro ridership could be an indication of attendance, assuming that most people rode the Metro to get to The Mall.  This is a solid data point, but one must consider the fact that the Trump crowd appears to be arriving later than the Obama crowd.  A total day ridership figure would be more helpful. http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/donald-trump-barack-obama-inauguration-crowd-size/index.html
  • A continuous stream of threats regarding severe violence during the inauguration disseminated by the media for weeks would tend to reduce the number of inauguration attendees for 2017. Such threats did not exist in 2009, and the impact of the threats on attendance is unquantifiable.
  • Corresponding attendance figures for past inaugurations are:


Estimated Attendance Metro ridership Ratio
2009 (Obama) 1.8 million 513,000 3.51
2013 (Obama) 1 million 317,000 3.15
2005 (Bush) 400,000 197,000 2.03
2017 (Trump) 250,000 – 600,000 193,000  

(It is unclear why the Obama ratios are significantly higher than the Bush ratio.  Do they represent an estimating bias? Crowd demographics?  Weather?  And which ratio should be applied to the 2017 data?)

What conclusions can be drawn from the above?

Based on past ratios of inauguration attendance to Metro ridership, a better estimate for Trump’s inauguration crowd would be 390,000 (2.03 ratio) to 680,000 (3.51 ratio).   Given the apparently later arrival of Trump’s crowd, a larger figure is probably more accurate.  Either way, the numbers favor the New York Times position that Obama’s inauguration crowds were larger.  One cannot and must not extrapolate to deduce anything more.

In the end it’s just a tempest in a teapot.  Nevertheless one must be vigilant to seek the truth because…

All is not as it looks

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