What Nate Silver’s success says about the 4th and 5th estates

Many are declaring the 2012 presidential election a victory for Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog. His success this political season — in both predicting the electoral college vote and in driving traffic to the New York Times — is a validation for the independent Fifth Estate, as well as the reassertion of journalism as a discipline of verification.

It might seem a bit heretical to link those two ideas — the rise of independent voices and the rebirth of verification — in the same sentence. After all, the spread of unfettered opinion seemed to coincide with an escalation in the amount of suspect information populating the marketplace of ideas. But they are, in fact, related.

Silver’s rise fits neatly with the other big trend of this election: fact checking. In both instances, journalism drove a stake in the ground for what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call the journalism of verification, in their book, “The Elements of Journalism.” While Silver used an algorithm to analyze lots of statistical models, weighting those with historical accuracy, to come up with his assertions, the fact checkers used old-fashioned research.

Both solved a problem created by the changing media ecosystem.

Silver first trained his mathematical prowess on baseball, creating a predictive algorithm to assess performance and later sold that to Baseball Prospectus, a statistics-based website with an annual book geared toward fantasy players and gamblers. From my observations, it looks like the sports journalism world is approximately three years ahead of the rest of journalism in many trends, including the ability to create a universe of talking heads to pontificate ad nauseum and in using statistics to drive the narrative. So it made sense that Silver would take what he learned in sports journalism and bring it to political journalism.

Silver is a true Fifth Estate success story. He started his political blogging career as an anonymous voice on the Daily Kos. But in 2008, he created FiveThirtyEight. He garnered a lot of media attention during the Democratic primary, when polls were wildly inconsistent and pundits seemed to be favoring Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama.

The Times signed Silver to a three-year contract in 2010, transforming him from an outsider to an insider. But his blog was well established as a legitimate source – for many people the legitimate source – of reconciling and interpreting conflicting polling data, long before his association with the grey lady.

Silver hardly needed The New York Times. Other organizations were actively courting him. Penguin gave him a $700,000 advance for his book, which came out this year. It was clear he was going places.

Back in 2008, both Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and PolitiFact (operated by Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times) with its pants-on-fire icon, seemed kind of gimmicky.

Both were a reaction to the cacophony that had become political discourse. Both were dismissed as liberally biased by conservatives. And both have weathered the criticism, mostly by being right but also by being popular with the audience.

FiveThirtyEight’s genius was to slay the pundits, who make predictions based on theories or notions, and suggest that those predictions have the same weight as statistical analysis.

PolitiFact’s genius was to slow down the political churn enough to point out the truths, half-truths and lies. And to do it in way that can be quickly digested and easily shared.

That brings us to the Huffington Post, which last presidential election was a three-year-old scrappy disrupter, with bloggers like Mayhill Fowler breaking stories like Obama’s “clinging to their guns and religion” statement.

Certainly the Huffington Post is no PolitiFact or FiveThirtyEight. If anything, HuffPo is contributing to the noise that Silver and the fact-checkers are trying to cut through. But HuffPo rivals its traditional media competitors in both influence and audience.

In fact, the popularity of FiveThirtyEight, PolitiFact and HuffPo reflect two desires among the audience, that might seem mutually exclusive, but in fact are co-existing quite well.

First, people want to cut through the partisan posturing. They want political analysis rooted not in political desire, but in knowable facts. PolitiFact provides that. But traffic to Huffington Post suggests some people also want information through an ideological lens — they just want it delivered by a brand that is transparent about its ideology. HuffPo does that. And Silver does both. He’s honest about his personal views (a registered Democrat), and when he offers his predictions, he does so based on math, not ideology.

What happens four years from now? We’re in for a new cycle of upstarts who will mature to powerhouses. Silver may move on from the Times, or maybe he will work a deal where the Times continues to benefit from his algorithm, but he isn’t personally as involved. PolitiFact and the other fact-checkers will continue to refine their craft, starting with the rhetoric around the pending fiscal cliff.

And Huffington Post will certainly continue to thrive. One of Silver’s more interesting posts was an analysis of HuffPo’s business model after it was acquired by AOL.

In that post, Silver addresses aspiring bloggers who want to become the next big thing.

“Look beyond a site’s traffic numbers and consider how it presents your material and how prominently it is featured, as well as the sort of audience it is likely to attract,” he wrote. “Being a small fish in a very, very big pond isn’t always the way to build up a name for yourself.”

Where will the next Nate Silver come from? She’s probably already out there, churning out something unique, solving a problem we can’t yet articulate.

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  • Anonymous

    It’s not that I am against Politifact chasing down the facts they want to disprove, it’s that they refuse to chase the facts they don’t want the answers to.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not that I am against Politifact chasing down the facts they want to disprove, it’s that they refuse to chase the facts they don’t want the answers to.

  • Jonathan Murphy

    I’m not really sure what you’re on about with the Marxism stuff (except that it’s the usual Far Right’s imaginative caricature of the Left), but I do agree that the Left’s embrace of Nate Silver is misguided. The adulation is misplaced, because it focuses mainly on the fact that Silver’s calculations reassured them that their guy was most likely to win, when it should be focused on how Silver’s calculations cut through the fuzzy “gut feelings” prognostications of the pundits and the media’s trumpeting of the election as a “horse race” and as “too close to call.”

    Simply put, forecasters like Silver aggregate the polling data, average them, some take into account variables such as econometric indicators and past accuracy of the polling firms, then run a few zillion election simulations. The most frequent outcome of the simulations provides a basis for a prediction of who is most likely to win.

    By combining the polling data, this increases the sample size (far greater than any single poll), which greatly decreases the margin of error and greatly increases the accuracy of any prediction. The problem was, the media was forever preoccupied with divining meaning from the latest single poll, with its small sample size and large margin of error and all. Worst yet, pundits were cherry-picking polls that supported their particular viewpoint and dismissing polls that didn’t support it.

    You see, Nate Silver isn’t the problem here, nor are the other poll aggregators–including aggregators with a right-leaning ideology, such as RealClearPolitics and ElectionProjection.com–all of whom showed Obama consistently in the lead for the last few months. They were only trying to shine a light, through the obscurations of the media and pundits, on the true state of the race. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

    In any case, the Right didn’t like what most of the polls were saying, thus the polls had to be wrong. The main criticism was that the polls were “oversampling” Democrats. All polls take a random sampling of the population, so how the heck can you oversample any given group? If the polls consistently “oversampled” Democrats, that just meant more of the likely voters happened to be Democrats. The Right refused to believe this, stating (based mostly on “gut feelings”) that there was no enthusiasm for Obama this time around, that Romney had the momentum after the first debate, etc. Well, the numbers don’t wear a blue shirt or a red shirt. They don’t lie. And, of course, national exit polls on election day showed just this, that voters identified as Democrats outnumbered voters identified as Republican.

    Rather than feeling “disenfranchised” by the true state of the race as shown by the poll aggregators, right-leaning commenters on the Internet didn’t have to sit there and accept the “futility” of it all. This could have been a wake-up call, to mobilize and to get out the vote; instead, it seemed they were more interested in trashing the numbers and demonizing Nate Silver.

  • Tuân
  • http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/ Prokofy

    Just because Silver may be right and his math may be right doesn’t mean that he’s a good thing and isn’t manipulated. Because of course he is, in subtle and obvious ways. His findings are trumpeted using the Times, which takes them on faith in a kind of scientism. The roaring adulation of Silver right now is creepy, because he himself says his science has to be based on humility and willing to look at facts. In that bubble of self-justification, he could go astray. And the numbers don’t stay fixed

    Nate Silver is the epitome of the left’s move to create Marxist-like “science” in political life that depends just as much on intuition and feeling as numbers. All the fact-checking

    It’s like the “death panels” meme. It doesn’t take a genius — or a hysterical conservative — to see that the tendency if costs have to be cut, and doctors are paid to give advice to shorten futile life to avoid heavy costs, they will hasten death. And yet the left pummeled Sarah Palin over this legitimate statement of conscience and ruthlessly tried to “science” their way out of this, pretending that there were no “death panels” as a literal search string and that oh, no, there could never, ever, ever be any immoral misuse of this power. That’s why we need morality as much as math.

    The numbers-frenzy is its own golden calf. And never forget that you don’t have half the country with you, maybe more, given how many didn’t vote out of a sense of futility due to Silver’s cloud of inevitability spread so wide. When you don’t have half the country, you can’t govern. Maybe that will make you acquire a heart.

  • http://twitter.com/kellymcb Kelly McBride

    I wonder if different types respond differently to the two models? I personally find Politifact more digestible and FiveThirtyEight a bit repetitive. But I like them both a lot.

  • http://twitter.com/kellymcb Kelly McBride

    I blame journalists if they mix up single-payer and voucher systems. Did that happen? While I think Politifact and FiveThirtyEight are very different, they are both trying to solve the problem of unnecessary noise.

  • Anonymous

    I find the attempt to promote PolitiFact through the success of FiveThirtyEight to be a bit of a stretch. On the one hand is a person well versed in math and the scientific process. On the other hand are journalists seemingly confused by differences between single-payer health care and a voucher system. (Don’t blame the journalists for the lack of expertise, but they clearly haven’t stepped into the health-care market to find their own insurance). FiveThirtyEight and PolitiFact aren’t in the same ballpark. They’re not really playing the same sport. — Mark M.

  • Anonymous

    I find the attempt to promote PolitiFact through the success of FiveThirtyEight to be a bit of a stretch. On the one hand is a person well versed in math and the scientific process. On the other hand are journalists seemingly confused by differences between single-payer health care and a voucher system. (Don’t blame the journalists for the lack of expertise, but they clearly haven’t stepped into the health-care market to find their own insurance). FiveThirtyEight and PolitiFact aren’t in the same ballpark. They’re not really playing the same sport. — Mark M.

  • http://twitter.com/donw Don Whiteside™

    I don’t think people want to cut through partisan posturing so much as they want to know what is and is not partisan posturing. Silver looks at assertions and assigns a judgment based on stated basis. He said/she said journalism as often practiced in political reporting, on the other hand, simply parrots two sides of an argument and refusing to take a position on truth. Silver’s combination of analysis and narrative is what makes him more compelling than the fact checkers.

  • http://twitter.com/LyraMcKee Lyra McKee

    “She’s probably already out there, churning out something unique, solving a problem we can’t yet articulate.” Love it.