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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Reid’s Cowboy Poetry Puffery

Sen. Harry Reid vastly overstated annual attendance figures for the federally subsidized National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada.

The Senate majority leader claimed that "tens of thousands of people" visited the annual event in Elko, Nev., "every year." He was speaking on the Senate floor March 8, defending federal funding for such events. But his claim was far from true.

The fact is that the event attracts between 6,000 and 8,000 people each year, according to Charlie Seemann, executive director of the Western Folklife Center, which sponsors it.

That's a soft figure. Seemann tells us in an exchange of e-mail messages:

Seemann: [I]t is difficult to get precise numbers because folks don’t buy just one ticket, which would be easy to count, but any number of tickets and passes to different shows, and a lot of locals just come to the free stuff, so a ticket count alone doesn’t get the actual attendance. We use a number of different indicators to estimate attendance, from ticket sales to hotel occupancy to the increase in what the city calls the “flush factor”…how many times toilets are flushed during a given period (seriously) to come up with attendance estimates. It is usually between 6,000-8,000 people.

Seemann tells us that 6,500 to 7,500 local school children also get educational programming in classrooms and at the event. But even if those children are counted, the total annual attendance still falls far short of  20,000, the absolute minimum that would qualify as "tens of thousands." Furthermore, the students would be in Elko whether or not the event took place, and they aren't generating tourist revenue.

Is Federal Funding "the Reason"?

Reid claimed that federal money is "the reason" the event takes place "every January." But Seemann says federal funding is only a "minimal" fraction — about 3 percent — of the sponsor's total support. He e-mailed the Folklife Center's list of supporters late on March 9, saying:

Seeman: [T]he Western Folklife Center receives only a minimal amount of funding from the NEA each year, typically less than 3% of our total organizational budget. And, more often than not, the grants are not for direct support of the Gathering, but for other projects of the Western Folklife Center. Funding for the Gathering comes primarily from ticket sales, which cover about 50% of the cost of the event, and the rest comes from local business support, individual donors and private foundations.

Although Reid said federal funds came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, money for the event and its sponsor has come mainly from the National Endowment for the Arts, a separate agency. (The two agencies were established in 1965 by the same legislation.) A recent NEA grant was $50,000 to the Folklife Center, but it was to support an exhibition including "contemporary handmade horse gear and other crafts" and not the poetry gathering itself. Seemann tells us that over the past 30 years the center has received some funds from the Endowment for the Humanities for such things as lectures and keynote addresses, but it has received "significantly more" from the arts endowment.

Seemann defends Reid to this extent:

Seemann: Reid was correct, however, in saying that the Gathering would not exist were it not for the NEA. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering came into existence 27 years ago because the NEA provided two small seed grants to the Western Folklife Center to first locate and identify cowboy poets throughout the West, and then to produce the first Gathering in 1985. Without that first assistance, the Gathering would not exist today.

We'll leave it to our readers to decide whether future grants are a proper use of taxpayer money, at a time when the federal government is borrowing roughly 40 cents of every dollar it spends. Reid's statement drew plenty of derision, and a lonely defense of sorts on the New Yorker magazine's website, of all places. All we're saying is that Reid was way off base when he claimed that "tens of thousands" attended each year.

Footnote: Although FactCheck.org Director Brooks Jackson has never attended the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, his wife, Beverly Jackson, has attended the event several times in recent years, and the couple has made charitable donations to support it.