Trump's MAGA rallies are getting an inflated boost from the press

Trump's recent mega rally in Wildwood now looks more like a mirage

Published May 21, 2024 9:01AM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking during a campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate former U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking during a campaign rally in Wildwood Beach on May 11, 2024 in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

Officials in Wildwood, New Jersey who were the source for the Associated Press’s (AP) reporting that former President Trump drew between 80,000 to 100,000 to a beachfront weekend rally now say it was not the number on the beach at the rally per se, but rather the number of people “in our town.”

For the actual rally number “we defer to the Trump Campaign for the exact count on the beach,” the latest Wildwood statement asserts. Lisa Fagan, the Wildwood press spokesperson AP originally cited as the source for the original crowd estimate was quoted as saying the eye-popping estimate was “based off her own observations on the scene Saturday, having seen ‘dozens’ of other events in the same space.”

Five days later, when asked to explain the wide variance between the AP reporting and the video that reveals a crowd in the few thousands, Fagan provided a statement from Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano, a Republican, at odds with what the wire service initially attributed to Fagan.

“As a tourist town, we speak in tourism numbers,” Troiano wrote. “When we see that volume of people attending a beach event, we know that 80,000+ people are in our town. We see a quarter of a million visitors every weekend in the summer on our 1.89-mile boardwalk, not to mention our five-mile island, so we know what that volume looks like. They were watching and listening from the beach and boardwalk, in bars and restaurants, at hotels and second homes. People even lined up along the streets parade-style. We defer to the Trump Campaign for the exact count on the beach.”

Troiano told NJ Advance Media last week “the rally will be held between Schellenger and Spicer avenues, a stretch of beach between two amusement park piers” accommodating “a crowd size of between 30,000 and 40,000.”

Troiano is under indictment on state corruption charges that he, along with former Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron and City Commissioner Steve Mikulski, fraudulently obtained coverage in the State Health Benefits Program (SHBP) as full time employees. All three pleaded not guilty.

There’s a hearing scheduled in Troiano’s case on May 17.

I had cited the AP reporting on Trump’s rally size in my story.

Since I started writing for the Ramsey Mahwah Reporter at 17, over a half century ago, the AP has been the gold standard for news gathering. Founded in 1846, AP has been “an independent news cooperative, whose members are U.S. newspapers and broadcasters, steadfast in our mission to inform the world,” according to its website.

Steve Peoples, AP’s chief political reporter, who was on the rally story byline, tweeted “Lisa Fagan, spokesperson for the city of Wildwood, told The Associated Press that she estimated the crowd represented between 80,000 and 100,000 attendees, based off her own observations on the scene Saturday, having seen ‘dozens’ of other events in the same space.”

On May 11 before the rally, People tweeted “Trump’s team expects ‘tens of thousands’ of supporters to attend this afternoon’s Jersey Shore rally, which may be among the largest of his political career.”

People’s X (formerly Twitter) account phrase is “the other side is not the enemy.”

But it just wasn’t the crowd size that AP used to boost the former president’s narrative. They gave his grievance about his having to endure criminal prosecution credence in their story headlined “Trump tells Jersey Shore crowd he’s being forced to endure ‘Biden show trial’ in hush money case.” Then in the body of the story what the headline says is Trump’s view pops up in the ‘objective’ narrative.

“Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, drew what his team called a ‘mega crowd’ to a Saturday evening rally in the southern New Jersey resort town of Wildwood, 150 miles (241 kilometers) south of the New York City courthouse where he has been forced to spend most weekdays sitting silently through his felony hush money trial.

Sounds oppressive.

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I wrote about AP’s media relations about the wide discrepancy between AP’s reporting on the crowd size and the actual video from the event. “The number is an estimate from an independent city official. The reporting notes this and is transparent about how Fagan arrived at the estimate,” AP’s media relations responded.

But the AP wasn’t alone.


How many people were actually at Trump's rally on Saturday?

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“Sandwiched between the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Trump stood in front of tens of thousands of people at a rally on the beach in Wildwood, N.J., where he largely repeated the same criticisms of President Biden that have characterized his stump speech in recent months,” the NewYork Times reported from a story datelined from the rally.

Of course, Trump cranked up his calliope proclaiming to the audience he had drawn “a much bigger crowd than Bruce Springsteen. Right?”

CBS News proclaimed that Trump’s one-day appearance at Wildwood had ushered “in an economic boom” in the Cape May county town.

“The story is a gift to the Trump campaign, and a peerless propaganda victory in an environment in which momentum and intensity are critical factors,” wrote anti-Trump Steve Schmidt, who advised Sen. John McCain. “The fantastical number is now ‘real.’ Speaker Mike Johnson tweeted about it too (as an aside, big numbers are a challenge for Johnson, who believes Earth is 6,000 years old and people and dinosaurs lived happily together). It has the double effect of intimidating Biden supporters, and simultaneously disaffecting them. How could it not? Immense rallies — even imagined ones — can have a profound psychological effect.”

By Monday, the Times was asserting Trump was leading President Biden “in five crucial battleground states, a new set of polls shows, as a yearning for change and discontent over the economy and the war in Gaza among young, Black and Hispanic voters threaten to unravel the president’s Democratic coalition.”

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The Times continued: “The surveys by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer found that Mr. Trump was ahead among registered voters in a head-to-head matchup against Mr. Biden in five of six key states: Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Mr. Biden led among registered voters in only one battleground state, Wisconsin.

Headed into the 2024 election, every American needs to up to the challenge of authenticating the news that they use to inform how they vote. After a generation of newspaper, cable and broadcast consolidation and layoffs news gathering has taken a major hit.

Truth and facts matter now more than ever.

We are in treacherous territory when the House of Representatives is controlled by a caucus that the overwhelming majority of whom broke their oath office voting not to certify the election of President Biden after the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol at the instigation of former President Trump.

This same junta is now taking turns trying to subvert the rule of law by trying to delegitimize the ongoing New York State court proceedings in which former President Trump is a criminal defendant.

This is more like an ongoing insurrection and subversion of the rule of law rooted in twisting reality to validate Trump’s delusion that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

The essential question is how we know what we know because the so-called reliable sources we’ve always counted on historically appear to be buckling under as they cover this election as just another horse race.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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