The NYT’s media columnist and Nate Silver have an entertaining spat; Safer announces retirement
Morning Brief: With FiveThirtyEight now an ESPN brand, the NYT’s media columnist goes out of his way to criticize data journalism, sparking a tit-for-tat debate between former colleagues
Pass the popcorn, The New York Times and Nate Silver are throwing around incriminations. This should be as entertaining as a Donald Trump rally – though without the nicknames, I suppose. I don’t expect Nate Silver to start calling media columnist Jim Rutenberg ‘Lyin’ Jim” or for Nate Silver’s average for correct predictions to be described as being ‘below the Mendoza line’.
At issue is a column written by Rutenberg that examined the fact that many in the media dismissed the chances that Trump could win the Republican nomination despite generally leading in the polls.
“Wrong, wrong, wrong — to the very end, we got it wrong,” Rutenberg starts his column.
What follows is a run through the various predictions made by the media regarding Trump’s chances at winning, pointing several times to former Times staffer Nate Silver, who last cycle brought both his FiveEightyEight brand to the paper, as well as his traffic. During the 2012 cycle, his FiveThirtyEight columns was claimed to have driven the lion’s share of web traffic from readers searching for political news, so his leaving for ESPN is a bit of a sore spot. In response, Silver used the weekly FiveThirtyEight podcast to respond.
“How did a demagog win a major party nomination?” Silver at first asks.
“A lot of chickens have come home to roost,” Silver said about both the election, and the public’s attitude towards the media. “First, check your own bed and see if it’s in order.” He then proclaims that “data journalism is going to triumph in the end,” as if it were a contest.
Bill Wyman of the Columbia Journal Review has a good article on the who said what about whom aspect of the finger pointing.
From my perspective Nate Silver comes across as thin-skinned. Rutenberg appears to go after the sort of data journalism that Silver represents, advocating for less predictions and more reporting, but he was also talking about the way some sites, like The Huffington Post, covered the primaries as entertainment. I think that is fair, up to a point.
But it is also highly unfair in other regards, and misses something.
In case you missed it, Silver made several predictions early in the cycle that famously came back to haunt him, severely underestimating the chances that Trump would or could win the nomination. At one point putting a two percent chance of him winning the nomination, and at another stage saying it was five percent.
Yep, he got it wrong.
But that is what Nate Silver is paid to do – talk data, probability and the like. So, to point to Silver and say his brand of data journalism is no substitute for good old fashioned “show leather” reporting is not only silly, but misses the whole point of data journalism. Talking to voters individually may help you understand the numbers, but unless you spend 24 hours a day doing it you won’t be gathering the numbers,
On the other hand, Silver seems to be like the .300 hitter who gets upset when someone points out he didn’t get a hit during one at bat. If you are going to make predictions be prepared to be called out when you are wrong (talk to William Kristol about this).
In the end, Silver’s problem wasn’t that he was wrong, but that he appeared to be looking at the media back last fall and reacting to all the coverage Trump was getting, all the airtime he was receiving, and trying to counterbalance it. To do so, Silver went beyond the numbers and got lost.
As for the NYT’s attitude towards Silver, well, let the numbers tell the story. How many times has the paper relied on its sources and in the end been burned? That is probably what made Silver lash out more than anything, that the NYT’s media columnist would look outward when questioning the media, rather than inward. But that is not Rutenberg’s job, that was Margaret Sullivan’s – and like Silver, she has left for another media company, in this case The Washington Post.
The Washington Post joined the Chicago Cubs bandwagon yesterday when Neil Greenberg penned a column headlined Cubs look every bit like the World Series favorite. Great timing, the Cubs went out yesterday and lost a doubleheader to the Padres.
What was that about predictions again?
Yesterday, CBS announced that Morley Safer, the longest-serving correspondent on 60 Minutes, would be retiring. He is 84. Safer was born in Toronto, Canada and began his career with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation joining CBS News in 1964.
His final show for 60 Minutes will feature an hour-long segment on his career at the news show.
“After more than 50 years of broadcasting on CBS News and 60 Minutes, I have decided to retire. It’s been a wonderful run, but the time has come to say goodbye to all of my friends at CBS and the dozens of people who kept me on the air,” Safer said in a statement released by CBS.