A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 24, 2013

Disruptive Influence: Why Political Statistician Nate Silver, Who Called the 2012 Election Almost Perfectly, Left the New York Times for ESPN

It would be hilarious if it werent so pathetic. Nate Silver, the political statistician who called the 2012 election results with uncanny precision from his perch at the New York Times,  has announced that he was leaving that institution for the gamier opportunities at ESPN, the sports and entertainment megalith owned by Disney. 

Initial reports had it that Silver was offered a broader scope for his talents, including sports reporting and even a shot at predicting the Oscars. But less happy tales out of school had it that Silver did not 'fit in' at the Times. As the following article explains, that appears to be true.

What is so sad and unseemly about this is that if there is any institution in need of reimagining, it is journalism, and probably political commentary most of all. Silver has had little patience for the prognosticators, bloviators and masters of conventional wisdom who populate the world's news hours with their portentous opinions. His clever and accessible use of data and his ability to explain both his methods and his reasoning captured the imaginations of those trying to make sense of the shifting political tides.

That poobahs in the Times hierarchy were offended by Silver

Dylan Byars reports in Politico:

Nate Silver, the star political statistician, was a "disruptive" outsider at The New York Times, his work disliked by some of his colleagues.
That's according to the Times' own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who today offered a strikingly honest assessment about the newsroom's attitudes toward a colleague she otherwise described as kind and "thoroughly decent."
"I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that," Sullivan wrote on her blog today. "A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work."
The news comes as Silver prepares to move from the Times to ESPN and ABC News, where he has been promised extensive air time, a role in the Oscars, and a digital empire that will focus primarily on sports but also politics, economics, and other topics.
"I suspect that this question of feeling at home in the Times culture was a relatively small factor, and that money, prestige and the opportunity to concentrate on sports and entertainment, rather than politics, were the deciding factors," Sullivan wrote. "But it all added up to a better package – a better fit — at ESPN, and last week he told The Times of his plans."
Comparing Silver to Brad Pitt's character in Moneyball, Sullivan writes 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.'" (Silver has leveled similar criticisms of horse-race journalism at POLITICO.)
After writing a supportive column about Silver, Sullivan says she received emails 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."
While some (including herself) would be sad to see Silver go, Sullivan said that "some at The Times" would be "gratified by his departure."


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