Million-Mullah March

A huge demonstration in Iran, yes, but please don’t say “millions.’

The population of Iran is 66 million, according to a 2001 estimate by the Central Intelligence Agency. About one-third of these 66 million are below the age of 14. That leaves about 44 million Iranians whom we might liberally define as adults. Let’s remember that figure as we ponder the veracity of the following Page One headline in the Feb. 12 New York Times: “Millions in Iran Rally Against U.S.” In the Teheran-datelined article, the Times’ Neil MacFarquhar writes:

Millions of Iranians galvanized by President Bush’s branding of their nation as part of an “axis of evil” marched in a nationwide pep rally today that harkened back to the early days of the Islamic revolution, with the American flag burned for the first time in recent memory.

The occasion was the 23rd anniversary of the Iranian revolution, which doubtless helped bring out crowds, and Chatterbox doesn’t mean to discount the galvanizing effect that Bush’s axis-of-evil demonization had on the Iranian people, a great many of whom already possessed a pathological dislike of the United States. Still, “millions” is an awfully large estimate in a country whose adult population is 44 million. If, by “millions,” the Times means something like 4 million, then approximately 10 percent of the adult Iranian population marched yesterday in protest against the Great Satan. If the Times has a more modest 2 million in mind, that’s still a very impressive 5 percent of the adult Iranian population. Is that possible? Yes, Chatterbox supposes, it is possible. But how does MacFarquhar know that “millions” marched? Here’s how he describes his methodology in the piece:

While the size of the Tehran crowd was impossible to estimate authoritatively, the wide avenues and highways leading to Freedom Square in Tehran were jammed with hundreds of thousands of people. Iranian television suggested that millions turned out across the country, showing pictures of jammed streets in every city. Marchers said they were more galvanized than in years past because they felt maligned by President Bush.

When MacFarquhar writes “Iran television suggested,” presumably he doesn’t mean that he’s taking the word of commentators on Iranian television, which is state-controlled and therefore likely to inflate the numbers. Chatterbox will assume MacFarquhar means that he based his estimate on footage that he himself saw on Iranian television. But the tendency of TV pictures to inflate the apparent size of crowds is well known to anyone who ever witnessed a small political demonstration and later watched in on the tube. (This is Entry 1 in the Demagogue’s Playbook.) Even the “hundreds of thousands” MacFarquhar estimated first-hand in Teheran is suspect. There’s no chance of getting even a vague idea of a crowd’s density (one person per three square feet is about the maximum) without an aerial view, and it’s doubtful MacFarquhar witnessed the Teheran demonstration from a helicopter. J.J. McLaughlin, who used to count crowds rallied on the Washington Mall for the U.S. Park Police (a practice it eventually abandoned after much carping from activists) told Chatterbox that he’s never seen a crowd of 1 million people in his life. “I don’t think people realize how many people a million people is,” McLaughlin said. Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995 brought an enormous crowd to Washington, but it didn’t bring 1 million people. More like 400,000, according to McLaughlin.

None of this is to deny the newsworthiness of the Iranian demonstrations, which were no doubt fearsome and politically significant. And certainly MacFarquhar would be a very brave reporter to wade into an anti-American crowd that consisted of mere hundreds. But “million” is a big number, and it shouldn’t be bandied about so casually.