Nate Silver and Journalism's Non-Overlapping Magisteria

It was recently announced that Nate Silver would be leaving The World's Most Important News Outlet, The New York Times, to head to ESPN, where he'll work for that network and its parent company ABC on sports, politics, Academy Award projections, and whatever else he's inclined to think about. I'm only marginally interested in most of the internal politics that led to Silver's move, but from all the reporting and Silver's own comments, it seems that he felt he'd be better able to turn 538 into a more comprehensive, wide-ranging hub there than at the Times, which sounds pretty reasonable. And since he didn't rise up through the journalistic ranks where the Times is the be-all and end-all, he probably doesn't place the same importance on the Times' prestige as many people do. But there is one interesting tidbit in the column that Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, wrote yesterday about Silver that tells us something interesting about the state of political journalism:

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.

His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the "story" – and that made him always interesting to read. For me, both of these approaches have value and can live together just fine.

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.

Touchy, touchy! But why should Silver have been seen by "traditional and well-respected Times journalists" as such a threat? First of all, you'd think that "real" reporters would also find punditry fundamentally useless. After all, they're the ones out there beating the bushes, wearing down the shoe-leather, getting the real stories on the ground, not just sitting in their offices and pulling "analysis" out of their butts, right? But more to the point, Silver never argued, either explicitly or through his work, that campaign journalism itself had little value, he only said it had little value in projecting who is going to win. Silver proved, as if we didn't know it already, that following a candidate around and getting spun by his aides is not the best way to figure out the race's ultimate outcome. But here's the thing: If you're a political reporter and you think that your whole job, or even most of your job, is telling readers who's going to win, then you're a crappy journalist.

The better way for them to look at what they do and what someone like Nate does would be, to use the phrase Stephen Jay Gould coined when speaking of religion and science, "non-overlapping magisteria." They each have a legitimate and useful place in our search for understanding, but they're asking fundamentally different questions. Political journalism should give us a deep reading of our politics: what motivates the people involved, how they go about trying to persuade us, what's true and false in their appeals, where exactly they want to take the country and what it would take them to accomplish it—in short, all of those interesting things that make up the functioning of our democratic processes. Quantitative analysts like Silver, on the other hand, ask much narrower questions, like "What are the chances the Republican candidate will win?" Those questions are interesting to many of us as well, but they aren't questions journalists should be trying to answer. If the only thing you ever read on politics was what Nate Silver writes, you'd have a poor understanding of politics as a whole, even if you had a good idea of how elections were going to turn out. I'm sure he'd be the first to agree.

The trouble is, many political reporters have come over the decades to think that "Who's going to win?" is in fact the question they should be asking; indeed, many of them think it's the only question they should be asking. So it's no wonder that when people like Silver come along and turn out to be able to answer it using an entirely different set of tools than those the journalists have spent their careers mastering, some react like petulant children. The answer for them, of course, is to focus on what they do well, and do it even better. Give us the full picture of our politics in all its fascinating complexity. And leave the predictions to somebody else.

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