Why Do We Expect So Much From Nate Silver?

Photo: Marius Bugge

"It is time for us to start making the news a little nerdier," Nate Silver announced in an essay, written in a Red Bull—aided last-minute cram session, which aimed to explain the philosophy behind his new ESPN-housed data journalism venture, FiveThirtyEight, which launched this week. There has been a lot of big talk about what data journalism in Silver's hands might do, from the stats maven himself and from others. "Science, government, academia and the private sector also have struggled to find the signal in the noise," Silver wrote. FiveThirtyEight, he suggested, was the beginning of a correction. The site published his essay under the label "Manifestos." And yet FiveThirtyEight, as it launched, had a bloggy, familiar feel — there was a great deal of talk about numbers and the mainstream media's discomfort with them, and significantly less actual deployment of data to resolve matters of public interest. The New Republic questioned his central metaphor, which is more or less the judgment that once exiled Rick Moody. "I have long been a fan of Nate Silver, but so far I don't think this is working," the influential economist and blogger Tyler Cowen wrote yesterday afternoon.

That judgment — made just hours after Silver's site launched — was ludicrously quick. Content-wise, it wasn't really even a bad first day. Nevertheless, I had some more modest form of the same feeling. In the endless talk that preceded FiveThirtyEight, and the slightly slapdash quality it had upon its arrival, there is the suggestion that perhaps the revolutionary potential of FiveThirtyEight loomed a bit larger to the rest of the journalism world than it did to its founder himself — that we expected something grander than what Silver will deliver. The articles, after all, are pretty good — lucid and nicely eclectic. But the theme running through many of those pieces — pieces, presumably, carefully chosen to put FiveThirtyEight's best foot forward — was that the right data simply didn't exist to answer the questions its own journalists had raised.

A piece about whether paper toilet-seat covers actually do anything for public health (great question!) ended by throwing up its hands, as did another that hoped to judge how many rats live in New York City. A contrarian political essay meant to tamp down media enthusiasm for Scott Brown's Senate candidacy merely pointed to his approval ratings, which is exactly the kind of superficial stat that the Beltway pundits whom Silver loves to mock have been citing for decades. An economics article that suggested the hysteria over corporate cash-hoarding was overblown delivered on that promise, but only by pointing out that the media generally had paid too much attention to an initial 2011 Federal Reserve report and too little to the report's public 2012 revision. These were mostly useful articles, but they have tended to amount to a careful reading of existing academic studies, of the kind that many reporters already do. If the academics hadn't already solved a problem, then, often, neither could the journalists.

Is it unfair to think that Silver — or Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of the forthcoming Vox.com, or Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi at the slowly rolling out First Look Media — might do something more than this? Of course! Putting together an interesting website is really hard and really worthy, and Silver, early on, looks like he's on his way to doing that, which is great. I think the more interesting question is why — even accounting for the hype needed to launch a for-profit product — hopes for these projects, internally and externally, have been so high, why their announcements have to take the form of manifestos.

Silver has often been grouped with Klein and Greenwald, young and lauded journalists who have left mainstream media organizations to build websites that articulate slightly different ideas of what journalism might be. Because each of these projects is an independent start-up, and because each of the founders has expressed some exasperation (and in Greenwald's case, a hearty contemptuousness) towards the ways that journalists often operate, they have generally been seen as gonzo raids on the Establishment. I think there may be a more interesting way to see them, as trial balloons to see whether reported journalism might soon take a significantly different form, experiments the Establishment is interested in rather than attacks on it. Each is a response, in a different way, to the central anxiety of journalism, one that has been elevated by the internet — the anxiety that comes from our own inexpertise.

This anxiety is a permanent aspect of the gig — no reporter is really credentialed to define what is at stake in a given conflict, and yet every reporter does exactly that, every day. The old response was that a journalist's legitimacy came from his ability to get information no one else could. But now people can get more information on their own, and the journalists are doing less getting and more punditry.

There are moments when you feel the narrowing acutely. I thought the acerbic media critic Michael Wolff was on to something when he wrote yesterday about the "anti-journalism" that has characterized the coverage of the Malaysia Airlines crash: "It is, of course, an ideal story for the current journalism era because it costs nothing. Nobody has to go anywhere. Nobody has to cover the wreckage and the recovery. Not only is the story pretty much all just theories – but theories are cheap."

What Greenwald, Klein, and Silver have come to represent are a few possible ideas about how reporting might be rearranged to reacquire some of that authority, and the drift towards punditry (in which the basic anxiety of journalism is fulfilled and even star writers become indistinguishable from the general background noise of the internet) might be halted. Greenwald suggests a model in which reporting is a weapon in the essentially adversarial relationship between the public and the state, through which pugnacious journalists might reacquire a role as a tribune for public interests. Klein suggests a model in which reporting supplies a deep well of contextual background that can calm our tendencies to overreaction and hysteria and nudge the public towards a political debate that is less raw and more informed and agreeable. Silver suggests a model in which reporters can leverage new analytic tools to make sense of events. For all of the talk of a break from the mainstream media, each of these models is an amplification of something good journalists have always done. It is at least a little telling that the New York Times has in its own cautious way moved already moved at least a little in each of these directions.

The hope invested in these projects is that as the industry shrank, perhaps, at the very least, what was left might become smarter. The profession has retreated, but maybe it has retreated to higher ground. Which explains, I think, some of the big talk that has accompanied their introduction. And it may explain too the very slight sense of letdown that accompanied the launch of FiveThirtyEight this week. Another good site that amplifies and explains ideas from academia is useful to have; a new approach or set of tools would have been better. That is probably too much to ask of projects staffed by a handful of young reporters, however talented they are. But high expectations are the flip side, maybe, of the loud praise that has greeted Greenwald, Klein, and Silver all along — they are being watched, from within the industry, with hopeful, needy eyes.