Last week, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, announced he was leaving his partnership with the New York Times to take his unique brand of data-driven journalism to the goliath sports network ESPN. He’ll still be covering national elections with poll analysis, a real boon to sister network ABC, but the bulk of his number crunching will occur in the world of sports.
Erik Hare had a good post on this topic the other day, the thrust of which I’ll expand today.
Some of the discussion about Silver’s rise to prominence since 2008 has been about how “right” he has been. His data models combine the polling results of all the major pollsters, factor in other influential data sets, such as economic indicators, from which emerges a remarkably accurate prediction about the behavior of voters on election day. He almost perfectly tracked and predicted the results of the 2012 election, of course. Silver has also done some interesting analysis of trends in all kinds of sports data, which is how he ended up at ESPN. As a sports fan, I’ll be fascinated to see what he can do to help me win at fantasy football.
Still, though, that last sentence shows the rub. Why is that so important? Nate Silver has so much talent, why is he spending it on ESPN?
Well, he’s not giving up politics, for one. ABC is going to enjoy having Silver on their network in 2014 and 2016. And the truth is that Silver’s data driven reporting has exposed a glaring problem: most of what the national media does is BS. I don’t mean liberal BS or conservative BS. I mean regular BS. Punditry is far more lucrative than real, fact-finding journalism, and much easier, and — apparently — more popular. Biased journalists pretending not to be biased are seen as credible, while those with a stated point of view doing actual leg work, Glenn Greenwald for instance, are attacked and discredited.
If you read between the lines, that could be why Silver is taking his talent elsewhere.
There’s a line in an old song, “There’s no way to make losing look like winning, kind of like an honest politician, the kind you never find anymore. In fact, let’s face it, the sports page is the only place to go if a fella wants to know the score.”
I don’t know for sure, but I’d gather Silver is going to ESPN for the same reason I backed off of political organization after last year’s election to focus on hosting a radio variety show. When the most important things in a society are corrupted by nonsense, sometimes the way to change them is from the outside. I came to view political work as akin to to the task Spock faces at the end of “Wrath of Khan.” He has only so much time in the engine room before the radiation kills him. A person has only so much time in politics before the BS turns you into something other than what you were.
And this will be the defining attitude of an entire generation of Americans, soon to face a much more ambiguously daunting world than the baby boomers did.
Silver’s most important work might not come from breaking down player stats, but he’s ready to dive into more important topics at any time. And that should continue to make the pundit class nervous, which is what they deserve.