Hazy on number of masked Trump rally-goers in Tulsa? Media failed to zero in on the figure

Before President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa this past Saturday evening, I predicted that 2 percent of those in attendance would be wearing masks as a precaution against catching the COVID-19 coronavirus. (You can find my forecast here, on my “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” page.)

Of the approximately 45 people in this frame, three are wearing masks–roughly the same proportion that I found in reviewing 20 photos that I took of the TV screen during Trump’s rally.

Having heard that the capacity was 20,000 at the BOK Center (it’s actually 19,200), I computed that 2 percent figure to amount to 400 folks. After all, the Trump team was trumpeting a crowd so packed that it was going to require Agent Orange to share remarks outdoors in addition to his indoor rally, so that he could acknowledge those who couldn’t get inside the arena.

Turns out, I was wrong on both counts—massively overestimating Trump’s drawing power and, to my happy surprise, underestimating his followers’ sense of caution.

Let’s examine the first data point: turnout.

According to the Associated Press, about one-third of the seats were empty, while The New York Times coverage offered that “at least” one-third of the arena seats went unfilled. The operative part of that phrase is “at least,” as Tulsa fire officials later provided an estimate that there were just under 6,200 attendees. That latter figure, if accurate, means that more than two-thirds of the arena was empty.

The Trump camp disputes those figures, saying that it was at least 12,000 people who came. At any rate, let’s move onto my masking estimate. It’s derived from a cross-section of 20 photographs that I took of my television when C-SPAN panned to the audience during the last hour of Trump’s nearly two-hour talk.

Of the roughly 375 people in the still images that I reviewed, 28 appear to have been wearing masks. It would have been 30, but one couple (below, to Trump’s left) had their masks dangling below their chins—there’s no telling whether they were masked for most of the event.

Those 28 (to 30) represent a roughly 7- to 8-percent masked rate. Even accounting for a margin of error from this unscientific sampling, it’s hard to imagine the figure dropping below 5 percent for the entire arena, let alone going as low as my pre-event 2 percent projection.

To mask or not to mask? Who cares, anyway?

Well, for one thing, it was one of the questions that served as a hot, controversial topic in the days leading up to Trump’s visit to Oklahoma, his first rally in 110 days. Public health officials urged the President not to hold the rally. Indeed, in the context of all sorts of daily life spaces, wearing a mask (or not) is a subject of intense interest and debate across the country.

Consequently, I would have expected that news media accounts would have gone beyond the cursory general observations about the proportion of people who wore masks.

Without a doubt, hats outnumbered masks–as did beards and other staples of Trump-mania.

Instead, we got this hazy accounting from The New York Times: “Many of the thousands of Trump supporters at the rally did not wear masks or stand six feet apart — health precautions that Mr. Trump himself has ignored.” 

And an equally unambitious excerpt from USA Today: “Most of the attendees at the rally were not wearing masks, nor were social distancing guidelines observed.”

“Many” and “most” fall far short of painting the picture: by my count, more than 9 out of 10, and perhaps as many as 19 out of every 20 individuals, was mask-less. But I was watching on TV—these publications had people on the scene.

To be clear, wearing a mask is no guarantee of safety. But there is broad medical consensus that doing so lowers the likelihood of transmission, particularly from the mask wearers to those around them. So, for as long as it is a public-health matter, enterprising journalists or other observers should take the effort to provide a more precise estimate of these gatherings as the Election 2020 campaign unfolds.

Vague phrasings such as “many” or “most” going without masks—or whatever the case may be at future Trump rallies—is just sloppy, lazy reporting. The same, simple arithmetical assignment goes for journalists covering presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign gatherings, whenever those may occur.

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Strange Times in Oak Park: Responding to a Rant Straight Out of the Trumpian Playbook

There are times when you cannot stay on the sidelines, but must get into the fray. Over the past three years, the (mis)behavior and all-around despicable activities of Donald Trump have prompted me to write several letters and this blog post about our Liar-and-Scofflaw-in-Chief.

And this past week, on a more local level, I was moved to respond to a local elected official here in Oak Park, Ill. Below you can see excerpts from Trustee Susan Buchanan’s tirade:

Go here for the full meeting video, with the three-hour mark a helpful spot to pick up the proceedings. Observing that portion of the meeting allows fuller context for the exchange between Trustee Buchanan and others on the board.

Trustee Buchanan’s behavior was downright “Trumpian,” as I note at the end of my letter to the editor of the Oak Leaves, a Chicago Tribune-owned publication, and the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, which crafted the headline, `Shut up’ is a system of oppression.

You can also read the letter (as published by the Oak Leaves) below:

It was deeply dismaying to see the Oak Park Village Board of Trustees meeting on October 7. That’s the one in which Trustee Susan Buchanan told other (white male) trustees to “shut up” and “stop it,” among other offensive remarks, as they tried to speak on revisions to the village diversity statement.

This was no momentary outburst, but a sustained table-pounding, finger-pointing diatribe that occupied the better part of four minutes. The irony and hypocrisy are thick; the topic was the diversity statement—wherein the board affirms its commitment to, um, a variety of viewpoints, among other lofty aspirations.

To place Trustee Buchanan’s misbehavior in broader context: in over six years of serving on local government boards, I have never witnessed anything remotely resembling such a scene. Further, in my 20 years as a former journalist covering hundreds of local government meetings—including some that were wildly dysfunctional—the only close analogy would be the three-ring circus that was the Town of Cicero’s public proceedings. And even by that measure, Trustee Buchanan established a new low for conduct.

Setting aside her troubling behavior for a moment, consider the utter lack of logic that Trustee Buchanan exhibited. In her view, white men (and perhaps women?), should be constrained from voicing their perspectives on issues that, presumably, have not personally harmed them in their lives.

The brilliant “Civil Discurs-O-Matic,” as illustrated by Marc Stopeck of the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest.

I, for one, reject the belief that the Village Board should apply such a superficial standard to determine if he or she is “qualified” to speak on a topic.

Trustee Buchanan’s cynical tactic could have come right out of the Trumpian playbook: seize on differences in gender, race, and any other characteristics as a cudgel to silence and diminish others and their points of view.

Unsurprisingly, I am far from the only one who has taken deep offense to the trustee’s remarks. Special kudos to Marc “White Enough” Stopeck of the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, who captured my sentiments through his spot-on, detailed cartoon (above).

A markedly different video than the above clip, by the way, is my 2011 “Oak Park’s Own” interview of Stopeck,

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Trump: A Reflection & Indictment of Our Times

A few weeks ago, a funny thought occurred to me: maybe President Trump is the perfect leader for our times.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I don’t mean funny in the “ha-ha” sense, since the closest Trump’s administration can be linked to humor is that it has been one protracted punch line in an utterly, outrageously cosmic joke.

And I don’t mean perfect in the “apex of moral code and personal conduct” sense, since it has been exhaustively documented beyond a shadow of Fake News doubt that Trump is quite the opposite.

But a few truths flashed across my mind and provided a glimpse into how Trump can be seen as Quintessentially American, 2019 Edition. So I was inspired to write a piece, “Trump is a Reflection and Indictment of Our Times,” that the Daily Herald recently published as a letter to the editor.

If clicking on the link isn’t for you (or if you are coming upon this post well into the future, and the link is perhaps no longer in effect), here is my opinion piece in its entirety:

Consider: most phone calls are from spammers trying to sell or bait or otherwise trick us into forking over money for questionable products, at best. Sure sounds like Trump and his long scandal- and scoundrel-tinged history of dubious business dealings.

Most social-media posts are an incomplete reflection of life, at best. And it is not breaking new ground to note that social media has been manipulated to sow discord and division. Again, that is reminiscent of a certain orange-haired septuagenarian whose last name rhymes with “stump.”

And most people don’t dedicate nearly enough time to expanding their minds by reading anything that requires intellectual rigor or may challenge the worldview they have developed thus far in life. By a zillion accounts, there are few things that more aptly describe President Trump than the above statement.

In short, this country has grown soft and fat. Ergo, Donald J. Trump is on his rightful throne as the King of Soft and Fat. He’s soft mentally (Holy Toledo!), he’s bloated temperamentally (Unholy Twitter feed!) and let’s stop there, since I won’t resort to his (highly ironical) penchant for body-shaming.

For too long in our culture, we have settled for the shortcut and self-deception. Likewise, we settled for Trump as president.

Will this menace continue to retain support from a majority of Republicans and Republican leaders, whether it’s grudgingly, cynically, ignorantly, gleefully or otherwise? Or will a breaking point be reached between now and the Republican National Convention next August?

We already have a clear view of the president’s character. Between now and then, we will learn more about the character of America, and especially the Republican Party, in its response to “Donald being Donald.”

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Dear donald: Can We Make You Stop Writing Again!?!

Dear donald: Can We Make You Stop Writing Again!?!

donald emailDear donald,

On behalf of the National Junior High Contest on How to Respond to the Orlando Tragedy, I want to confirm receipt of your essay, headlined “MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!” and which you included in an email from your campaign for U.S. President this afternoon.

I have re-printed your essay here:

“Dear matt,

The horrific attack that took place this past weekend reveals how weak the leadership is in our country. My thoughts and prayers go out to the many friends and families affected by the events in Orlando, Florida. I am going to be a President for all Americans, and I am going to protect and defend all Americans. We will not stand by and allow another tragedy like this to happen. We are going to make America safe again and great again for everyone.”

First, Mr. Trump, I must take you to task for again failing to capitalize my name. To give you a dose of that medicine, I have already kept your name in lowercase (above) and in subsequent references to your donald-ness in this letter.

How does that make you feel? A little less important? Somewhat overlooked?

On that basis alone—your inability or unwillingness to properly punctuate something so basic and so personal as someone’s name—I was tempted to stop reading the filth that seeped into my email in-box. You may recall how you gained access to my email: it came after I registered for the Trump Rally That Wasn’t at the UIC Pavilion in March.

In every email since then, you have addressed me as “matt.” I have thought about unsubscribing to your vitriol masquerading as a political campaign, but then you wouldn’t have been able to compete in the National Junior High Contest on How to Respond to the Orlando Tragedy! (I figured you’d appreciate that exclamation point…it had been too long!)

Turning our attention to that essay, I have to acknowledge, donald: your botched salutation aside, you begin your first sentence with so much promise: The.

Well done! You capitalized the often-underestimated article…I’m so proud of you! Let’s Make the Capital Words Capital Again!

Alas, you go downhill from there: “…horrific attack that took place this past weekend reveals how weak the leadership is in our country.”

I don’t know where to begin, and I could go on for a very long time—people tell me that they really love my long sentences. I’m an amazing writer, and have a hot wife who loves my literary flair. (I know how much you love your hot wife—at least we’ve got that in common, donald.)

Oh, getting back to your sentence…well, it’s just plain ugly. Sure, an argument can be made that our national leadership isn’t at the apex of our nearly 240-year history. But, come on, if you want to make that kind of assertion, it’s about 894th on the list of relevant claims in the first point of a missive that comes in the wake of such a brutal massacre, donald.

High on my list of suggested endings to that sentence: “….reveals how broken our national gun-loving system is that it allows such rapid-fire weapons of destruction into a citizen’s hands.”

But, no, you again whip out your broad brush of Sweeping Condemnations Without Cogent Recommendations and cynically use this tragedy to try to score political points.

The rest of your diatribe is also a disaster, donald. It’s a complete, total disaster. (I’m jabbing my finger at you, in case you were wondering.)

You offer your “thoughts and prayers” and as if that isn’t enough to make a fair-minded American gag, you go on to make a promise that is beyond your control: “We will not stand by and allow another tragedy like this to happen.”

Do you think you’re talking to preschoolers, donald? Such a pledge is irresponsible and arrogant, for starters. Then, of course, you wield the phrases “great again” and “safe again” in an apparent attempt to anticipate Google search terms—or because you like using “again” again and again. And again?

donald, I am absolutely elated to inform you that your essay “MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!” finished dead-last in the National Junior High Contest on How to Respond to the Orlando Tragedy.

On a personal note, happy 7th birthday. Or is it your 70th?

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7 Take-Aways From the Trump Rally in Chicago

Inside the UIC Pavilion with my friend, in the aftermath of the rally's cancellation.

Inside the UIC Pavilion with my friend, in the aftermath of the rally’s cancellation.

Earlier tonight, I was among the thousands of people who journeyed to the UIC Pavilion for the Donald Trump rally. Clearly, the event meant different things to different people: rally, speech, protest, performance art, commercial enterprise.

And all of those activities—and then some—transpired. Only Trump didn’t take part in any of it, as security concerns raised by a large number of protesters prompted its “postponement.”

By scheduling an appearance, though, Trump set the stage for any number of individuals to take up those tasks. And while Trump didn’t show up, there was plenty to engage the senses.

Here are this recovering journalist’s 7 Trump Rally Take-Aways:

1. This Was a Cancellation, Not a Postponement

The Trump campaign is apparently calling this a postponement but anyone who was on hand can testify that there is little chance Trump will be speaking at a large Chicago venue any time soon. Certainly not under the same free-for-all rally-style circumstances—and by “free-for-all,” I actually mean an event where the tickets are free of charge, as this one was.

Anyone could secure a ticket and, thus, take steps to disrupt the show from going as the Donald had planned.

2. You’re Right, Ben Carson: Donald Trump is ‘Shiny’

A few weeks ago, shortly after he dropped out of the race, Ben Carson was asked by TV personality Katie Couric to offer one-word descriptions of the candidates still in the fray for the Oval Office. Of Trump, he said, “Shiny.” Elaborating for a puzzled Couric, Carson explained that people can’t help but look at shiny objects.

I am aghast at the support Trump has received. It seems we are in some surreal (bad) dream that has him playing the Presidential front-runner for the Republicans. Yet, I halted my work early on an otherwise-mundane Friday afternoon to hop on the train and stand in line for more than two hours to see this train wreck with my own eyes.

Shiny, indeed.

3. Attendees Were Wildly Diverse, Mostly Well-Mannered

When I showed up 90 minutes before the scheduled 6 p.m. start, the line was at least a half-mile long. Not only have I never been in a line this long, I didn’t believe lines of this length could exist. My “community” consisted of the hundreds who strode past and stood in front of and behind me within my vision and hearing.

Trump 510 pm

It’s 5:10 p.m. After 40 minutes in line, the parking garage looms ahead. Beyond that: the UIC Pavilion.

They ran the gamut of age, ethnicity, and judging by dress and manner, socio-economic class. A minority of people declared their support for Trump through buttons, shirts, hats and other items. Another, relatively small number of people declared their opposition through similar means. Most, like me, were hard to “read.”

In the two-plus hours that I was outside the Pavilion, before going inside, I witnessed no physical confrontations and fewer than five verbal jousts.

4. There Was a Conspicuous Lack of Event Leadership

Like most others, I walked the distance to the end of the line around 4:30 p.m.—only to have the line break down (after nearly two hours) during the final stages of approaching the Pavilion entrance. What had been an orderly line mushroomed into an amorphous mob. The doors had opened at 3 p.m., and while thousands were already inside, as it turns out there was more room.

At any rate, whoever was in charge of the flow of would-be attendees didn’t stick with it. Or maybe nobody was “in charge”? Consequently, people who were strolling in the area could—and did—simply jump into the crowd at this last stage. The crowd was gradually pressing in, and an undercurrent of danger began creeping in, along with collective resentment and restlessness.

When you’ve paid $0 for your ticket, non-buyer beware: you get what you pay for.

Trump 608 pm

It’s 6:08 p.m. The line has come to a halt in front of UIC Pavilion.

After nearly 20 minutes of this standstill, side doors opened and people began streaming out. Tired of waiting and wondering if we’d ever get through the proper entrance, a group of us began shuffling through this unexpected opening.

Within 15 seconds, word began circulating that the event had been canceled, but that did little to discourage those on the outside from wanting to finally get inside.

5. After the Event Was Canceled, A Sort of Muted Chaos Reigned

I cannot speak to the activities or vibe inside the Pavilion before 6:30 p.m. or so. But in the immediate aftermath of the event’s cancellation, a sense of muted chaos permeated. There were pockets of tension, celebratory chants among Trump foes, some physical altercations involving shoves and punches, and police leading a small number of individuals out.

A young man stormed the stage, was pulled off…and then the same individual, a few minutes later, created another sort of disturbance that led to his being escorted out by officers. Most simply observed, with hundreds of smartphones dotting the landscape and capturing video and photos.


6. Tensions Escalated Outside

About 15 minutes after my side-door entrance into the Pavilion, a voice repeatedly boomed over the sound system: “Attention, attention: the event is now over, please exit the building. Thank you.”

Gradually, the crowd dispersed and streamed outside. In the three or four minutes that my friend and I lingered, we saw a burly young man get a head of steam and barge, blind side, into a smaller young man. Both went crashing to the ground. A man in a business suit—it was unclear if he was acting in any official capacity—stepped between them, then someone else violently shoved the peacemaker in the suit.

The moment teetered on the brink. Would this escalate into a melee? No police officer was in the immediate vicinity—they seemed to be strategically deployed to open spaces away from spots where people were clustered. The situation seemed to cool, but my friend and I moved briskly out of the area.

7. Even When Divided Politically, There Are Ties That Bind

An hour earlier, standing in line with my friend, he mentioned a time in his life when he served in the military. This piqued the curiosity of the man in front of us, a Trump supporter who entered the conversation.

Turns out they both served in the Air Force. Handshakes and stories of various posts and experiences ensued between this fellow citizen and my friend, a non-Trump supporter. They didn’t discuss politics—their common experience, years of service to country, and mutual respect easily trumped that.

“You know,” said the other man, pointing to a contingent of anti-Trump demonstrators who vocally walked past our spot in line. “We served so that they could have their freedom of speech. And I can disagree with their speech, too.”

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