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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

A Million: If You Say It Enough Times . . .

October 18, 1995|Howard Rosenberg

Behold the Million Word Column!

This sentence will bring the word count to only 15. It will never reach a million. That doesn't matter, though. What does matter is that if it's called the Million Word Column enough times, history will record it as a million words.

Same for the "Million Man March," Monday's historic rally of African American men at the Capitol that was neither a march, as Bryant Gumbel noted on NBC's "Today" program that morning, nor a throng of a million, according to the U.S. Park Police, which traditionally counts such citizen demonstrations.

Its crowd estimate--computed with aerial photos and grids but disputed by Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan and others atop the rally hierarchy--is 400,000.

Whatever the number attending, it was sufficient to fill a television screen. The very panoramic sweep of this event, whose rallying and speechmaking were aired live on CNN and C-SPAN and widely excerpted and discussed in newscasts this week, was extraordinary. Just the sight of it was unforgettable. You didn't have to be there or be African American to get whooshed up in the emotion of seeing this infinite ribbon of black. You didn't have to care a whit about Farrakhan, either.

Yet imagine the profound experience if you were an African American on the scene. Viewers got a whiff of it from Maya Angelou, a poet for all seasons and a regular at many big events, whose eyes went teary and whose deep voice went quivery at one point while standing on the Capitol steps delivering her verse to the multitudes facing her. You could almost hear the nation's TV viewers clearing their throats and trying to regain their own composure along with her.

If the park police estimate of 400,000 is accurate, even that figure is awesome, exceeding by a whopping 150,000 the Capitol crowd that heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

Yet crowd counts involve high stakes. Reputations can hang in the balance. And "400,000 Man March" doesn't have that magic. So what a public relations coup it was for Farrakhan and the other rally organizers to have their catchy title, "Million Man March," automatically adopted and inscribed in stone for the ages by much of the media even before a count had been attempted. It demonstrated how easily some in the media are willingly manipulated.

The larger the turnout, the more glory for Farrakhan and his associates and, symbolically at least, the greater the social and political clout of African Americans. Despite their eclectic composition, these peaceful rally participants surely would be seen as a black monolith by many non-black Americans. Translation: Power.

"We are not going to play the numbers game," co-organizer Ben F. Chavis Jr. vowed on CNN as the Capitol Mall was still filling at mid-morning. Then he immediately played the numbers game. "We know that we got 1 million persons out here."

*

Later, a speaker at the podium cited "numbers exceeding 1.5 million." Another speaker threw out 2 million. On CNN's "Larry King Live" that night, Farrakhan put the crowd total at "no less" than 1.2 million. It grew overnight, for CNN reported on Tuesday that "organizers say the figure is closer to a million and a half."

Too late. Curiously, rally organizers found themselves ensnared by their own advance hype. CNN had its "Million Man March" logo up and going in Monday's wee hours, and a CBS News promo at 7 a.m. Monday advertised, "Full coverage of the Million Man March tonight on the 'CBS Evening News.' "

Even during news reports that stressed caution ("Tens of thousands of Americans are gathered . . . for the 'Million Man March,' " Matt Lauer reported on "Today"), the million stood out.

Yup, million it was.

Although the park police count was widely reported on TV as Monday wore on, million became the event's neon tattoo throughout the day, to the extent that even Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and one of the rally's and Farrakhan's severest critics, used it in a TV interview. As did ABC's "Nightline" in introducing that evening's topic: "Tonight, a million man march through the eyes of three black men."

Meanwhile, the title "Million Man March" was used without quotes in an editorial in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times and with quotes in stories about the rally. The paper also noted the park police count.

As time moves on, the qualifiers will fall away and, accurate or not, popular lore will recall this event as the march that drew a million African American men to the Capitol. Just as, thanks largely to media coverage, a certain judicial proceeding will be remembered as the trial of the century.

And this will forever be the Million World Column.

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