If the first 100 days of his presidency are anything like the first two, Donald Trump could well go down in history as the deviator in chief. By that, I don’t just mean a deviation from researchable facts -- you know, the truth -- but from quantifiable statistics.
Yes, statistics can be spun. Nobody knows that better than a trade reporter who has covered audience estimates for nearly four decades. But usually, the spin has to do with the way the researcher tabulates and analyses the numbers, not by making them up.
In the parlance of media research, a “deviator” is a “variable equal to the difference between a variate and fixed value, often the mean.” Based on the first 48 hours of media spin, I think that is an apt label for the commander in chief.
While some of the facts surrounding the size of his inaugural audience are subject to interpretation, there are enough quantifiable statistics to prove that it was not, as Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted to the White House press corps, “the largest audience to witness an inauguration -- period. Both in person and around the globe."
Photographic evidence aside, there are quantifiable statistics to prove the in-person audience was not the largest, including Washington, D.C.’s historical mass transit usage on inauguration days. Washington D.C.’s Metro ridership was 571,000 on the day of Trump’s inauguration vs. 782,000 on Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration day and 1.1 million on his 2009 inauguration day.
While the absolute global media audience for the inauguration may not be known for some time, if ever, the U.S. television audience was not the largest -- period.
According to the most commonly accepted source in the media industry, Nielsen, Trump’s audience ranked fifth among modern televised U.S. presidential inaugurations.
But it wasn’t until I heard Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway being interviewed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” Sunday morning that I realized what the problem may be. It could be the Trump Administration just doesn’t know how to do math.
“I’m a pollster by trade, so I’m into things that are actually quantifiable,” Conway asserted, before going on to state: “Donald Trump’s been President for about eight hours. President Obama was here for eight years.”
The interview took place about 45 hours after Trump had been inaugurated as President.
But the real issue isn’t what the the absolute numbers are, but why, in its first two days in power, the Trump Administration has chosen to go to war with the media over statistics that are quantifiably untrue.
After acknowledging the debate over the absolute inaugural audience size is not that important, ABC’s Stephanopoulos zeroed in on the question that is:
“The question is why does the President choose to talk about that at the CIA? And why does he send his press secretary out to talk about it in his first White House briefing and say things that aren’t true?” Stephanopoulos asked Conway.
Remarkably, she replied by citing a statistic that anyone on Madison Avenue would describe as “apples to oranges.”
“Thirty-one million people watched this inaugural,” she said, adding, “That is far above 20.5 million that watched President Obama’s second inauguration.”
The apples-to-apples comparison would be the ratings for each President’s first inauguration. According to Nielsen, Obama’s first inauguration was watched by 37.8 million viewers, 23.5% more than watched Trump’s.To be fair, those ratings estimates are based on Nielsen’s standard deviation. But you get the point.
But if I may answer Stephanopoulos' question indirectly, the reason is that Trump -- a former reality TV star and current reality TV producer -- still measures his performance based on audience estimates. And like a lot of TV industry executives, he can't help trying to spin them.
Or maybe it was as ABC News’ Cokie Roberts said later during “This Week’s” roundtable discussion.
“What he’s managed to do is minimize the incredible demonstrations yesterday all over the world of women turning out by more than a million,” Roberts said. She suggested the Trump Administration intentionally misdirected the media’s focus from covering the women’s march against Trump, and directed it on Trump.
When Trump told the CIA -- and the news media attending his address -- “I have a running war with the media,” Roberts concluded, “We shouldn’t take the bait.”