It’s that time of year, Thanksgiving. And you know what that means. The Plaza Lighting Ceremony – broadcast live this year on KSHB TV – will bring hundreds of thousands of people to the Country Club Plaza. Maybe millions.
And since the Plaza and Kansas City Police are on record as never having made an actual count – nor having any training or methodology to make one, there or anywhere – why not shoot for the moon?
Big numbers make it funner, easier to sell advertising and sponsorships and to convince merchants and townspeople that the folks in charge are doing a good job. A darn good job.
Just one problem.
When I reported a carefully mapped out crowd count of 34,000 and change at the 2003 lighting ceremony the Plaza and KCPL immediately backed off the 250,000 to 300,000 people estimates they’d been hawking and sheepishly admitted they had no idea how many people were down there.
That report – featured on the front page of the Kansas City Star – noted that past reported crowd “estimates” had grown from 28,000 in 1967 to 30,000 in 1973, 125,000 in 1980, 235,000 in 1991 and more than 300,000 in 2000.
After doing a followup count in 2010, those very early counts may have been spot on.
Now let’s backtrack for a minute to my recent column about WaterFire, chastising the Star‘s Steve Everly for taking the bait and reporting an “expected” crowd of 30,000 to 35,000.
Comments section dude Gerald Bostock stated that, “Reporters are told to get a crowd estimate from an ‘official’ source, but the flaw in that thinking is that people like police chiefs and fire chiefs have no idea how to estimate a crowd and couldn’t care less. When they are asked, they do a quick scan of the area, pause for maybe three seconds to work through some secret algorithm, and announce, ‘50,000’ or ‘1 million.’ Edison would be inspired to see this scientific method in action…The desire to inflate the crowd size(s) is another examples of KC’s need to exaggerate its importance and accomplishments..the reality of the situation is you have editors back at the office far removed from actual reporting and fretting about a deadline; they demand a number and don’t care if it’s accurate, only that is comes from a defensible source so that the newspaper/tv station can CYA.”
Bostock – himself a fictional character created by the band Jethro Tull – has the right idea except for the part about Star‘s editors falling over themselves to report crowd numbers.
Trust me, they’re not.
I’ve told you guys before that former editor Mark Zeiman told editors to rein in the crowd counts in 2003 after the newspaper was embarrassed at a Plaza peace rally by the Pitch.
Here’s editor Steve Shirk‘s (he still there btw) email on the subject and I quote:
“The Star will not publish crowd estimates of outdoor events, except where the police make special arrangements to issue an official estimate. Currently those events are the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Plaza Lighting Ceremony.”
Hold it right there…
I know Steve Shirk. I’ve been edited by Steve Shirk. Steve Shirk is a friend of mine (sound familiar?). And this I have to tell you this was written eight months before my Plaza crowd count column and Kansas City Police officials going on record as never conducting official crowd counts.
Indoor events where the seating capacity is known can be reported only if the reporter counts the crowd twice, Shirk continued.
“When it’s impossible to do a count the reporter should acknowledge the crowd in general terms,” Shirk said. “Time of the count must also be included.”
And that’s where Everly fucked up nine years later at a Star that’s arguably severely understaffed.
“Crowd estimates from event organizers should never be used as the only estimate in a story…” Shirk concluded. “Any deviation from this policy will require the approval of the managing editor.”
Get it, gang?
Clearly the Star was in “won’t get fooled again” mode and didn’t want reporters tossing around potentially trumped up numbers by motive-driven promoters.
Which is exactly what “hot fuel” eager beaver Everly did.
Uh, case closed.