Nate Silver, the gay wunderkind of political data and a web-traffic magnet, will be leaving The New York Times for a new spot at ESPN, and a lot of them will be happy to see him go. Their reasons tell you a lot about what’s wrong with political journalism.
Silver does data analysis, which in other hands would be deadly but in his becomes lively and sophisticated. He correctly predicted the outcome of last year’s presidential election in all 50 states; his FiveThirtyEight blog became the bookmarked site for Democrats seeking reassurance that the Romney resurgence existed only in fantasy. Silver is also openly gay, which led one right-wing blogger to claim last fall that Silver was too effeminate to understand data.
Silver’s departure from the Times is a blow to the paper, but apparently some political reporters there seem it as a cause for rejoicing. According to a column by public editor Margaret Sullivan, “a number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work.” Sullivan says that Silver’s “ 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.’” In other words, everything that is wrong about political coverage today — the faux controversies, the breathless analysis of day-to-day activities, and the the obsessive focus on small shifts in polls. Political reporters prefer to think of themselves as soothsayers interpreting the entrails of political campaigns instead of relying upon a scientific approach. Imagine how galling it is to discover that the science was actually right.
Silver says that the newsroom culture at the Times Punditwas “not a big factor” in his departure. For someone who started his career analyzing baseball statistics, ESPN probably seems like the dream home. Plus, Silver will still get to write about politics and the Oscars (he’s better at politics). And The New York Times can go back to reporting about politics as an insiders’ game that only the privileged can explain, unencumbered by data.