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Jul 27 2013

Stay Classy, New York Times

Nate Silver is leaving the New York Times for ESPN and ABC News, where he can simultaneously pursue his interest in both sports and politics (he began his career as a baseball analyst, using some of the same mathematical techniques he later used for politics). And the “public editor” of the NYT, Margaret Sullivan, sets fire to the bridge:

Why did Nate Silver decide to leave The New York Times and accept an offer from ESPN?

That’s the cause of great speculation in media circles at the moment. As has been noted elsewhere, there’s no question that The Times made a big pitch to keep him and that the effort to do so involved those at the highest levels, including Jill Abramson, the executive editor, along with people on the business side. And there’s no doubt that decision-makers are disappointed.

After all, his star power was significant. And his ability to drive traffic – especially among young, non-newspaper readers with his FiveThirtyEight blog – was unmatched, and probably will remain so.

Right. So they tried like hell to make sure he stuck around. And now that he’s chosen another suitor, it’s time to trash him:

I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that. He was, in a word, disruptive. Much like the Brad Pitt character in the movie “Moneyball” disrupted the old model of how to scout baseball players, Nate disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics.

His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics…

A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility…

The Times tried very hard to give him a lot of editorial help and a great platform. It bent over backward to do so, and this, too, disturbed some staff members. It was about to devote a significant number of staff positions to beefing up his presence into its own mini-department.

Clearly this is not going to cause any navel-gazing among the old guard media, especially the old gray lady. The “kind of political journalism the Times specializes in” is, in fact, useless. It has been for a long time. It has turned campaign reporters into little more than stenographers, unless they get a whiff of a sensationalist scandal that can make them famous for a brief moment. They dutifully report the latest bit of bullshit put out by campaign press secretaries on the bus as if it had even the most remote relationship with the truth.

The kind of journalism that Silver has essentially invented is an important one. He’s given the public a new set of tools for understanding polling data by applying rigorous mathematical analysis to them. Doing this is a real challenge to major media outlets like the Times, which loves to trumpet the results of the polls they commission as though they were the gold standard.

41 comments

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  1. 1
    doublereed

    “He was really popular and ruining all of our bullshit with math.”

  2. 2
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Hey: Go ahead and report on politics, that’s great. The problem is all the predictions based on bullshit rather than science. Obviously, the Times has a problem with science. It kind of destroys all the content previously generated based on nothing. (Which was exactly the crap I never payed attention to anyway.)

  3. 3
    lofgren

    It’s interesting that you and I read the tone of this piece totally differently. I didn’t see it as trashing Silver at all, but rather portraying his Times colleagues as close-minded and unimaginative. Most of the column praises Silver’s techniques and the fact that other Times reporters disliked his approach seems to reflect negatively on them rather than on him.

  4. 4
    Chiroptera

    Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics…

    Well, yeah, if “equally known for” means that same thing as “a common misconception is”.

  5. 5
    Chiroptera

    The problem with most political reporting in the US is that there is very little in the way of real analysis. By analysis, I mean that journalists should be interviewing actual experts to find out possible and probable consequences candidates’ and officials’ proposed policies, that is, give useful data to the electorate so they can make informed choices at the polls.

    Instead, their “analyses” consist completely of trying to determine how the candidates’ and officials’ speeches will affect poll numbers among low information voters (while doing nothing to change the “low information” state). And Nate Silver’s great sin was showing that the mainstream journalists couldn’t even do that part right.

  6. 6
    poxyhowzes

    I read Sullivan’s piece exactly as Lofgren did, whether that was Sullivan’s intention or not.

    I might say that Silver not only uses math, but lots of it — he runs thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of simulations on certain questions.

    pH

  7. 7
    slc1

    The “kind of political journalism the Times specializes in” is, in fact, useless. It has been for a long time. It has turned campaign reporters into little more than stenographers, unless they get a whiff of a sensationalist scandal that can make them famous for a brief moment.

    Anthony Weiner cough, cough.

  8. 8
    gshelley

    ah yes, the classic journalism of uncritically reprinting whatever candidates say with minimum investigation into the truth of the statements, just so that you don’t appear biased

  9. 9
    Modusoperandi

    Typical. You people side with the boring dweeb who uses numbers instead of the horse-race pundit style reporter, simply because he’s right.
    Look, it’s better to be wrong for the right reasons (like not upsetting the boat) than right for the wrong ones (math? Come on!)
     
    gshelley “ah yes, the classic journalism of uncritically reprinting whatever candidates say with minimum investigation into the truth of the statements, just so that you don’t appear biased”
    To be fair, it’s also cheap. And it doesn’t upset the powerful people they need access to so that they can get the dissembling statements they don’t investigate.

  10. 10
    Michael Heath

    lofgren writes:

    It’s interesting that you [Ed] and I read the tone of this piece totally differently. I didn’t see it as trashing Silver at all, but rather portraying his Times colleagues as close-minded and unimaginative. Most of the column praises Silver’s techniques and the fact that other Times reporters disliked his approach seems to reflect negatively on them rather than on him.

    poxyhowzes writes:

    I read Sullivan’s piece exactly as Lofgren did, whether that was Sullivan’s intention or not.

    Ed is citing this news and analysis piece for its news. The news reported by Margaret Sullivan, who is the NYT’s public editor and therefore a voice supposedly independent of the NYT’s editorial staff, is that much of the staff of the NYTs is glad Nate Silver is gone. Sullivan’s analysis is that Silver’s leaving is a loss to the NYTs.

    Ed in no way implies Ms. Sullivan agrees with many of the staff’s conclusion, ‘good riddance Silver’s gone’. In fact Ed concurs with Sullivan’s analysis; that Silver’s leaving is a loss to the NYTs. Precisely because it enables the NYTs to continue to perpetuate mediocre journalism without annoying demonstrations of superiority by a guy like Nate Silver.

  11. 11
    ethanol

    Hooray! I have been following Nate Silver since 08, and when he moved to the Times they were still free online. When they threw up a pay wall, it seemed fair for their own content but it was bullshit that it also went up around their associated blogs, including Nate Silver’s. So I’m glad to see him moving on, he didn’t need them and he certainly didn’t need their exclusive readership.

  12. 12
    Orac

    I’m with lofgren. I read the piece a couple of days ago, and my reaction was that I was shocked that the NYT public editor would portray NYT reporters and news culture as so hidebound and resistant to data-driven change. This passage is particularly telling:

    I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that. He was, in a word, disruptive. Much like the Brad Pitt character in the movie “Moneyball” disrupted the old model of how to scout baseball players, Nate disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics.

    His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics…

    I mean, seriously. He just denigrated a lot of NYT political reporting as the NYT specializing in polling, horse race coverage, and punditry and only as a seeming afterthought did he mention that, oh, by the way, the NYT is also known for in depth investigative reporting. It was damning with faint praise. At least, that’s how it came across to me.

  13. 13
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    @Michael Heath:

    Ed wrote:

    And now that he’s chosen another suitor, it’s time to trash him:

    Since the negative reactions by Silver’s Times colleagues that Sullivan reports all occurred before Silver left the Times, whereas Sullivan’s piece appeared afterwards, it’s a fair reading that Ed thinks the “trashing” is being performed by Sullivan herself.

  14. 14
    tomh

    @ #10

    Ed in no way implies Ms. Sullivan agrees with many of the staff’s conclusion

    You don’t think he’s talking about Sullivan when Ed says, “And now that he’s chosen another suitor, it’s time to trash him:”? Sure sounds like he is. I just think Ed read it too quickly and took the reactions she was reporting on as her own reactions.

  15. 15
    D. C. Sessions

    And now that he’s chosen another suitor, it’s time to trash him:

    That’s not how I read Sullivan. Her “disruptive” comment, in context, seems to have been positive in the same sense that Apple products have been “disruptive” for more than thirty years.

    In the end, the management of the Times supported Silver, but the peer culture was not welcoming — which reflects more on the peer culture than on Sullivan or the Times as a corporation. I’ve seen this happen in corporate acquisitions and it’s no shock to see it happen with a newspaper.

  16. 16
    yoav

    I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that. He was, in a word, disruptive.

    And yet..

    As has been noted elsewhere, there’s no question that The Times made a big pitch to keep him and that the effort to do so involved those at the highest levels, including Jill Abramson, the executive editor, along with people on the business side. And there’s no doubt that decision-makers are disappointed.

    I don’t know about you but if I had a disruptive employee who decided to resign I’ll be helping him pack not send the entire corporate leadership to beg him to stay.

  17. 17
    lofgren

    As others mentioned, there’s the trashing him line. There’s also “And the ‘public editor’ of the NYT, Margaret Sullivan, sets fire to the bridge:” And most annoyingly, “Clearly this is not going to cause any navel-gazing among the old guard media, especially the old gray lady.” When it seems to me that is exactly what this piece is. The Times worked hard enough to keep Silver that they must be examining the factors that cost them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are reaching out to young reporters willing to learn his methods.

    What I think is so interesting is that you could read the piece as acidly as Ed does, with Sullivan saying “Well of course some people thought he didn’t fit in. Not me of course, I say live and let live. It’s just that it’s so disruptive to have such people around.”

  18. 18
    aluchko

    @Michael Heath

    Ed is citing this news and analysis piece for its news. The news reported by Margaret Sullivan, who is the NYT’s public editor and therefore a voice supposedly independent of the NYT’s editorial staff, is that much of the staff of the NYTs is glad Nate Silver is gone. Sullivan’s analysis is that Silver’s leaving is a loss to the NYTs.

    Ed in no way implies Ms. Sullivan agrees with many of the staff’s conclusion, ‘good riddance Silver’s gone’. In fact Ed concurs with Sullivan’s analysis; that Silver’s leaving is a loss to the NYTs. Precisely because it enables the NYTs to continue to perpetuate mediocre journalism without annoying demonstrations of superiority by a guy like Nate Silver.

    So it sounds like we all agree on Sullivan’s analysis but disagree on Ed’s :)

    For the record I agree with the others that Ed may have misread Sullivan’s tone

    And the “public editor” of the NYT, Margaret Sullivan, sets fire to the bridge:

    Putting someone’s title in quotes is rarely a supportive act, and ‘sets fire to the bridge’ implies she’s trying to cut off Nate’s return path.

    Next
    And now that he’s chosen another suitor, it’s time to trash him:

    He’s clearly claiming Sullivan trashed Silver.

  19. 19
    Michael Heath

    Re aluchko’s last post: I concede the point, thanks for correcting me. Ed’s wrong to put Sullivan in the same category as those at the NYTs who are glad to see him go and wrong in describing Sullivan’s article.

  20. 20
    slc1

    Is there any information as to the identity of the assholes at the Times who objected to Silver? Certainly, the Times could do without the likes of Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen, Ross Douthat, and David Brooks. I don’t think it would miss Maureen Dowd either, although she occasionally comes up with an interesting take.

    Of course, the Washington Post is worse, with the likes of Charles Krauthammer and George Will. Although I seldom agree with her, Kathleen Parker is often worth reading as a sane conservative.

  21. 21
    lorn

    I think a lot of the conflict comes about because people forget what role the NYT is designed to fill. Ostensibly it is structured to be a source of news, factual information, learned opinion, and effective journalism. Of course all that is secondary to its primary purpose, the prime directive of all business, no matter what they otherwise claim to be about: making a profit.

    Functionally the NYT is about making a profit by trading content, and/or exposure of potential customers to advertisers, and/or dissemination of propaganda, for money and influence. They want to sell newspapers, e-content, and have a large and profitable customer base that hey can pimp out to advertisers and others who are willing to pay for exposure.

    The ensconced elites within the NYT prefer to present political content in terms of the story of personalities and the electoral horse race, announced minute-by-minute, in a way that engages and plays up the drama in the same way a ringleader plays up a circus act. He creates drama where there is none. The pretty lady on the high wire isn’t going to get killed. The clowns will put out the fake fire and save the orphans. The lion tamer will get the beasts to do his bidding and live to tell the tale.

    Silver deflates the drama by pointing out that behind the shouting and hand waving pretty mush everyone paying attention knows what the outcomes will be walking in. The editors and writers have a vested interest in playing up the drama to sell content and capture eyes. They make believe that the outcome isn’t knowable, that it is still a mystery. And then Silver comes along and tells you what is going to happen, relieving you of the burden of the need to read thousands of column-inches of content and hundreds of hours of self-inflating talking heads. He ruins the mystery and obviates the need to listen to their carefully crafted stories.

    He has in effect walked into a movie house full of people who have never seen or heard of The Sixth Sense and announced that the character played by Bruce Willis is dead. At which point you can pretty much save yourself two hours in the dark and a bag of stale popcorn.

    To the extent Silver gives the ending away, and the writers at the NYT make a living adding mystery and an entertaining story to a race that has pretty much been decided, they are working at cross purposes.

  22. 22
    Don Williams

    1) I pissed myself laughing at Ms Sullivan’s statement “Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics.”. Did the Times ever find those nukes of Saddam’s? Or investigate why Dick Cheney got so much help from the Democratic side in conning America into an unnecessary war?

    2) I don’t think Nate Silver is scientific. What’s scientific was engineer Vilfredo Pareto’s observation that a small number of people own most of the wealth, receive most of the income, have most of the power and make most of the major decisions. Stats doesn’t work when you have a small number of actors — you have to look at what skin they have in the game.

    Pareto’s never got the recognition he deserved from the Economics profession because he noted that the economics profession is full of crap. Economists like Larry Summers serve the same purpose nowdays as the priests of ancient Egypt or corrupt medieval bishops preaching the Divine Right of Kings.

  23. 23
    slc1

    Re Don Williams @ #22

    This reminds me of a meeting on computer simulation I went to in Ann Arbor a million years ago which was attended by a number of folks who worked for the General Motors Laboratory. I asked one of them why the Chevette wasn’t designed as a front wheel drive car. His response was, General Motors isn’t in business to make cars, it’s in business to make money. Similarly, the New York Times isn’t in business to report news, its in business to make money.

    Of course Nate Silver isn’t scientific. Math/statistics/probability inference isn’t science. By the way, why am I not surprised that ole Don isn’t impressed with Nate Silver, who called 50 out of 51 races in 2012, missing only Florida, which he said was too close to call. Something to do with his ethnic background? Not a bit of it, perish the thought.

  24. 24
    schism

    Is there any information as to the identity of the assholes at the Times who objected to Silver? Certainly, the Times could do without the likes of Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen, Ross Douthat, and David Brooks.

    Personally, I’d rather let the type of “journalists” you mentioned stay on board the increasingly-anachronistic newspaper industry. Then, when it inevitably goes under, it’ll hopefully sink the assholes along with it.

  25. 25
    CSB

    I’m just going to repeat what I said elsewhere on the Intertubes.

    If Thomas Friedman and David Brooks were not two of the “three high-profile Times political journalists” who were complaining, then this is probably the most high-profile incident yet of Nate Silver doing something wrong.

  26. 26
    Don Williams

    Re slc at 23:

    1) I never said math and stats aren’t scientific — I said they are a pisspoor way of analyzing the US power structure and politics.

    Including the point that elections don’t matter anymore than they mattered in the Soviet Union — any threat to the oligarchy is taken care of in the primaries or well before.

    2) For example, Look at what billionaire S Daniel Abraham
    did to Howard Dean’s presidential bid in the 2004 Iowa primary:

    http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0306-04.htm

    One of the few challenges to the Israel Lobby — cut off at the knees early on with a measly $200,000.

    3) Or look at the New Republic’s smear of Ron Paul in the primaries as a “racist” –based on 20 year old newsletters and a tortured guilt by association.

    Which is hilarious. First off, the New Republic’s Marty Peretz never had a problem with racism so long as it was directed at the Arabs.

    Second, the New Republic promoted an unnecessary war in Iraq that has killed more black men in the past decade than the Ku Klux Klan killed in the past 160 years.

  27. 27
    Don Williams

    The SAC case shows how the simplications that economists make (“prisoners’ dilemma”) are idiotic.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/business/sac-case-tests-a-classic-dilemma.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Plus the above article doesn’t even note the most obvious move — that billionaire Stevie has a contract out on Martoma’s family if Martoma snitches.

  28. 28
    dingojack

    onnnikens – “”I never said math and stats aren’t scientific — I said they are a pisspoor way of analyzing the US power structure and politics”.

    Nah, constructing flimsy conspiracy theories about how the Trilateral Commission, the Lizard-men and the UN are trying to control North Virginia’s precious, precious bodily fluids coal, are far more entertaining.

    “… an unnecessary war in Iraq that has killed more black men in the past decade than the Ku Klux Klan killed in the past 160 years”.

    Citations required.

    “The SAC case shows how the simplications that economists make …”

    Oh those evul economists and their simplications!
    Nice to see you’re singing from the NYT’s songsheet:
    “Numbers? Numbers? Wee don’ neeed no steenking numbers!”

    Dingo

  29. 29
    dingojack

    “Plus the above article doesn’t even note the most obvious move — that billionaire Stevie has a contract out on Martoma’s family if Martoma snitches”.

    Citation required.*

    Dingo
    ——-
    * Do you have actual evidence of a conspiracy to commit murder & etc.? Nah, didn’t think so – just another Papier-mâché conspiracy theory….

  30. 30
    Don Williams

    Oh, look — there is an angry little Chihuahua nipping at my shoelaces. Infuriated, apparently, by my earlier comments re Australia’s gross unimportance in the scheme of things. How amusing.

    And it has Paris Hilton’s intelligence: unable to understand that the Times article was about possible tactics Stevie could take and that my comment was that the Times had overlooked the most obvious tactic.

  31. 31
    slc1

    Re dingojack @ #29

    Ah, ole Don was just speculating, informing us as to what his course of action would be if he were in Steven Cohen’s shoes.

  32. 32
    lpetrich

    I’m concerned about what will become of his blog entries for the NYT. Does he have enough of the rights to them to be able to publish them elsewhere?

  33. 33
    slc1

    Re dingojack @ #29

    Considering that Whitey Bulger apparently had the ticket of one of the potential witnesses against him canceled, why not Steven Cohen, who has a lot more money then Whitey?

  34. 34
    captain_spleen

    “it’s time to trash him:”

    Except it doesn’t make Silver look bad. It makes the paper’s staff look bad.

  35. 35
    captain_spleen

    yoav @16: “I don’t know about you but if I had a disruptive employee who decided to resign I’ll be helping him pack not send the entire corporate leadership to beg him to stay.”

    That’s a different kind of “disruptive”.

    Silver isn’t being described as the kind of asshole who makes meetings impossible to run, etc.

    Silver is being described as “disruptive” in the sense of “he has a new way of reporting which is different than other journalists, and some think is superior”.

    If your employee is disruptive in a way that is making your business *better*, you don’t encourage him to resign.

  36. 36
    captain_spleen

    lpetrich: He owns the “FiveThirtyEight” blog, so probably will take his blog posts with him.

  37. 37
    captain_spleen

    slc1 @33: “Considering that Whitey Bulger apparently had the ticket of one of the potential witnesses against him canceled, why not Steven Cohen, who has a lot more money then Whitey?”

    Bulger has a well-known history of violence and connections to violent criminals. He has form, as they say.

    Cohen, not so much.

  38. 38
    dingojack

    awww – donnikens hates it when reality rains down and turns his fantasties to mush. He finds it hard to understand why everyone points and laughs at him, so he stamps his little foot and calls them poo-poo bum-holes. Bless.
    Dingo
    ——-
    “Hush, hush
    Nobody cares
    Litle Donnikens has-
    fallen-
    oown-
    stairs.”
    (with apologies to Dorothy Parker).

  39. 39
    oranje

    *sigh* But ESPN ruins everything it touches…

  40. 40
    democommie

    “1) I pissed myself laughing at Ms Sullivan’s statement ”

    Most of Ed’s Readers, Dondi, assume that you do that on a regular basis, as well as hearing voices in your head and smearing your own feces all over your body.

  41. 41
    slc1

    Re democommie @ #40

    Come on now, there is no need for this type of conversation. As a matter of fact, IMHO, ole Don made a good point about the New York Times playing lap dog to the Bush Administration relative to Saddam having WMDs. By the way, how’s the search for those WMDs coming along these days? Of course, the Washington Post is even worse then the Times. The neocons who run the Post’s editorial pages hire fascist rat fuckers like Marc Theissen and Jennifer Rubin to provide commentary. At least the Times gave Kristol fils the heave ho.

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