I have no idea how many people attended the DC rally today; could be 10 or 1,000,000 for all I know. I’m sitting outside my law school in the sunshine. I know that there is much commentary on comparisons to the Beck rally in terms of size. But I am unsure how to interpret the following sentence opening the Washington Post story today on the rally. The headline says “‘One Nation’ Rally Draws Thousands.” But the opening sentence says:
A rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial kicked off Saturday with tens of thousands of progressive activists hoping to energize supporters worried about the conservative tea party movement and the possibility that Democrats could lose control of Congress.
So does that mean that it kicked off with “tens of thousands of progressive activists” actually in attendance on the Mall? Or does it mean that there were, somewhere, someplace, on the Mall or in Los Angeles or Mumbai, “tens of thousands of progressive activists hoping to energize supporters”? With, drawing on the headline, only thousands of actual activists on the Mall? I don’t know and the rest of the story doesn’t say, at least when I read it; it seems to be one of those online stories from a newspaper updating as it goes, but without indicating where or how the updates are made.
Just as a linguistic construction, this seems to me a good illustration of the possibilities and limits of “strategic ambiguity.” I regard this sentence – as someone curious as to the actual turnout at the Mall – as flawed. But it is possible that the writers or editors thought it a clever way of avoiding committing themselves. Is the ambiguity a bug or a feature? What is the most editorially space-efficient way to clarify this sentence, one direction or the other?
Added: By the way, my general position is that in reading or writing or, really, any rhetorical exercise outside of deliberate polemic, a primary ethical requirement is fidelity and charity. I don’t think it is possible, or particularly useful – often quite the opposite – to try and write so as to eliminate all possibility of ambiguity. There is also an obligation on the part of readers to read with a charitable eye to the intended argument or meaning. Here, however, the ambiguity lies in exactly the question that, for many readers, is the point of the piece, the one matter on which the article ought to be crystal clear, even if only to say, we haven’t a clue how many people were there.