The Right Path, Part II: Nate Silver and the Delegitimisation of Traditional Journalism and Objective Data
This is the second in a series of four posts, where I argue that the American left is in danger of following the American right on its path into the wilderness. The series introduction can be found here. Part one, which took a look at how the actual path the right took, can be found here. The third part will look at the effects of this shift on adults with developmental disabilities, and the fourth will zoom out to focus on what the left risks losing by risking this path; these will appear in the next week or so. The entire series, including supplemental posts, can be found here.
My hands-down favorite story about the right-wing media machine — and, I believe, the most telling — is the way it handled Nate Silver in the 2012 presidential election.
As a reminder, Nate Silver was the statistician and FiveThirtyEight blogger who had built a model, based on polling data, that showed President Barack Obama statistically likely to fend off Mitt Romney. His model also predicted the Democrats holding onto the Senate.
This model was troubling to right-wing propagandists because at the same time Silver was crunching numbers, they were reporting a narrative that claimed the data showed a Romney landslide on a scale not seen since Reagan buried Mondale. The entire country hated Obama and the Democrats, these pundits had been doggedly assuring the faithful for the past two years, and they swore they had the secret data to prove it. Worse for the propagandists, people were actually listening to Silver because his model had greatly outperformed all of the so-called experts’ models in both the 2008 and 2010 elections. Even worse than that, Silver wasn’t reporting his data as a way to stump for Obama. He was just calmly pointing out what the numbers said, and didn’t really seem to care who won.
Now, if you were a conservative pundit or pol in 2012, there were a number of things you might have done after seeing Silver’s promulgations. For example, you might have asked if you were failing to get your core message across to people. Or you might take a second look at your “makers/takers” rhetoric, and reevaluate its potential appeal to voters. You might even go so far as to review some of those policy positions that seemed to be tanking you in said polls, and huddle over how you could tweak them to become more palatable to those you needed to punch your chad. And failing all of that, you might have at least had the good sense to shut the hell up and not make Silver’s model a bigger story than it already was.
That’s what you might have done.
What conservatives chose to do was to go after Silver full bore, viciously and mercilessly. The National Review’s Jonah Golberg sneered, attacking Silver for being such a teacher’s-pet egghead that he not only created a model that took in new data as it was available, but that also that he calculated it to a tenth of a percent. No, really:
On any given day, Silver might have announced that — given the new polling data — “the model” was now finding that the president had an 86.3 percent chance of winning. Not 86.4 percent, you fools. Not 86.1 percent, you Philistines. But 86.3 percent, you lovers of reason.
Other conservative pundits and polls nodded their heads; some suggested his calculations were wrong based on the rigorous mathematical proof that he looked totally gay. Not able to address the facts at hand — and unwilling to allow their audience to hear something that countered their narrative — they threw everything they could think of to undermine him: He was stealth-pursuing a secret ideology. He was just being a contrarian. He was begging for attention. All he deals with are numbers, and numbers don’t actually have any real meaning at all. They even went so far as to crown some random ass**le the new Statistics King, despite the fact that the guy was upfront about having absolutely no idea how statistics worked — except that he was pretty sure they only worked if the person doing them wasn’t effeminate — just because his “calculations” matched the narrative.
For leftists who wanted to retain the White House and Senate, the Silver hubbub was Christmas come early. Pretty much every liberal pundit alive wrote about it. The collective left-wing sentiments were wrapped up neatly by no less than that Conscience of a Liberal himself, Paul Krugman:
On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive.
This is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign…
[And] we’re not talking about the fringe here, we’re talking about mainstream commentators and publications.
Krugman was full of praise for the FiveThirtyEight statistician, and he wasn’t alone. The New Republic trumpeted that Silver had accomplished the surprising trick of “forever changing statistics” for the better. HuffPo’s editor thought Silver’s efforts worthy of a Pulitzer. Mother Jones declared Silver “the gold standard.” Balloon Juice had already gone on record that they wanted him cloned.
And I think it bears noting, a year and a half later, that the left was absolutely, positively, 100% correct — about the right and about Silver. In the past three elections that we’ve been paying attention to him, Nate Silver’s model has been scary good. He shows his math, and it’s entirely to his stat-fu credit that no one bothered going after him on the numbers.
The right’s naked reaction to data that went counter-narrative was about as embarrassing display as one might ever hope to see from people who are paid to pretend they have the country’s interests at heart. If there were any justice in the world, every future commentary published by Goldberg, David Brooks, Rich Lowry, Glenn Beck, the National Review, the Daily Caller, the circus of talking heads on Fox News, and everyone else in 2012 who slipped the knife into Silver while propping up Dean Chambers would be accompanied by a opening paragraph reading:
Warning: The following political commentary is being provided by one of the people who thought Dean Chambers was right.
But perhaps I digress.
After all, this is part of a series where I argue that the left is starting down the same path taken by the right into the wilderness. I’m supposed to be giving examples of the left, not the right. I mean, it’s not like left-wing opinion makes today would ever resort to what the right did in 2012 if Silver’s model showed positive gains fro the GOP. That would signal, as Mr. Krugman suggests, the kind of anti-objectivity insistence that the only test data need pass is the political. And we all know that only happens on the right. Almost by definition, it can’t happen on the other side.
If there’s on thing that liberal “false equivalence” flag-wavers are absolutely correct about, it is the disparate degree of influence left-wing media has on the left compared to their counterparts on the right. The right-wing media machine isn’t just dishonest, its cynically and calculatedly so. Yes, left-wing propagandists may be every bit as partisan (and they are), but they aren’t so brazen about making s**t up out of whole cloth.
The most important difference, though, is that left-wing propagandists don’t have the kind of pull over base and party as does Fox News, talk radio, and conservative pundits. As has been discussed hear in my threads ad nauseam over past two the years, the left’s disinterest pushed Air America into bankruptcy while the right forced the leader of their major political party to publically don a hagiographic hairshirt for displeasing Rush Limbaugh. Historically speaking, if a left-wing propagandist says something outrageously stupid or offensive, the left has been happy to let that pundit swing on his or her own petard. When a right-wing pundit does the same — no matter how idiotic — the right will circle the wagons and double down just for the sake of it.
If you are younger (or partisan), you might well extrapolate backwards that the right’s media machine and its influence has always been thus. In fact, however, it’s a relatively recent development born of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. As recently as mid-to-late 1990s, such a development was unthinkable. Even in 1999, Fox News was still a 9/11 away from becoming Fox News. Though it’s true they featured shows such as The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes, they provided similar platforms to personalities such as Paula Zhan and Ellen Ratner. Fox’s flagship show was The Schneider Report. It’s host, Mike Schneider, would eventually leave Fox at the urging of the Democratic Party in an unsuccessful attempt to capture New Jersey’s 5th District from Republicans.
Rush Limbaugh was at his peak in the 90s, but by and large ditto-heads were still considered cranks by most — including the Republican establishment. It is true that Limbaugh helped usher in a small group of radical freshman congress critters in 1994. But the GOP largely ignored those congress critters once they arrived in Washington, and the same constituents who had put them there voted almost all of them out of office two years later. Bob Dole, 1996 GOP presidential candidate, openly despised Limbaugh and the other movement conservative TV and radio personalities. They all hated him back, openly and on the air, and they actively campaigned for conservatives to back anyone but Dole in the primaries. Dole crushed them.
So if the right has not always been so, the question is begged: How were right-wing propagandists able to achieve such a stranglehold over the GOP in a little over a decade, while their left-wing counterparts remained relegated to the sidelines?
The answer to this question is that the right was willing to go nuclear in a way the left was not, which was this: For two decades, the right’s opinion makers have been systematically delegitimizing all forms of traditional journalism that countered the conservative narrative of the day.
Let me be clear, that when I say “traditional journalism” I am not referring to a type of medium, such as “newspapers.” Rather, I am referring to any kind of journalism that relies on reporters researching and reporting on objective data that is relevant to public discourse. The New York Times may not be perfect, but when it reports on a story it sends paid reporters out to gather information largely hidden from the public’s day-to-day lives. (And not necessarily hidden on purpose. Who among us has the time to comb through all the documents required to bring context to public policy?) When it makes a factual error, it publishes a correction; when it fishes up a story completely, it issues a retraction.
In the 1990s, right-wing opinion makers began openly encouraging conservatives to eschew traditional reporting in favor of punditry. They were happy to quote the NTY or the Washington Post on a particular story if the facts fit their narrative (and they still are), but even then it was it the midst of a constant stream of mocking, undermining and denigration toward everything published in “fish wrappers.” Limbaugh and others would point to the political leanings of an editorial columnist employed by the Times, and use that as proof positive that all of the actual reporting done by the paper was a vast, liberal conspiracy designed to keep the will of the people at bay.
And make no mistake — this delegitimisation has been total. The sources of news and data that right-wing opinion makers have successfully undermined for their own purposes doesn’t stop with the New York Times and the Washington Post. It extends to all non-Fox network news, public television and radio, academic research, government statistics, public fact-checking organizations, the scientific community, and any other “egghead elite” whose professional expertise counters the narrative.
Of course, this delegitimisation didn’t happen overnight; in fact, it can well be argued that it took a terrorist attack and subsequent war for it to fully succeed at all. Nonetheless, succeed it did. In fact, if you look at most of the places the right gets is news from today, you will notice that almost no actual journalism is performed. Fox News, the Daily Caller, the Drudge Report — none of these “news” organs pay people to go out and research a story except in very rare occasions. Rather, they rely on a circle of endless opinion makers commenting on things other opinion makers have recently said. Thus are they unburdened by the need to fact-check, make corrections of retractions, or deal with objective data that counters whatever daily narrative they happen to be pursuing. There is not a single institution remaining that right-wing opinion makers have not already completely and totally delegitimized amongst their base — save, of course, right wing opinion makers.
Which brings us back to Nate Silver.
As has been noted by Burt, Silver recently re-launched his blog FiveThirtyEight in cooperation with ESPN. Unfortunately for Silver, however, his very first dive into polling data uncovered bad news for liberals: Per FiveThirtyEight’s calculations, Obama’s approval numbers are dropping, and the position of the entire Democratic Party is deteriorating. At this time, he is predicting the Senate going State o’ Red in November. And it’s not like this particular post was the first sign that he might actually not have it in the tank for the Dems. Last fall, Silver corrected liberal pundits who predicted (or hoped) that the government shutdown itself would secure a 2014 victory.
As if this were not bad enough, Silver has had the audacity to hire an anti-global warming propagandist for FiveThirtyEight — or so you might think if you’ve been reading the pundits. Actually, Roger Pielke, Jr. is a firm believer in climate change; what’s more he believes climate change is already costing us dearly, and that steps need to be taken to curb its effects. He does, however, dispute the current left-wing narrative that the rising economic cost of natural disasters is propelled by climate change. Pielke’s take on the data is that that cost increase is due to increased wealth in those countries who are victims of these disasters. He may or may not be correct about this (I would have no idea), but — again — Pielke neither denies climate change nor lobbies against tackling it.
And the worst cut of all: Silver apparently thinks Ross Douthat knows how to write.
And what, you might ask, have left-wing opinion makers had to say about Silver now that he isn’t predicting Mitt Romney’s doom? To say that they have been critical is an understatement, and also somewhat untrue. What they have decided to do, rather, is to delegitimize not only Silver, but the entire concept of objective data journalism.
For example, The Week now finds Silver’s brand of objectivity “hippie-punching,” and has declared a it a “danger.” The New Republic has in turns dismissed Silver for being a NTY insider who cultivated readers should avoid due his being tedious, and insisting that the smart kids all know he’s not all that smart anyway. Matt Stoller has gone full Daily-Caller to deduce Silver’s evil, hidden, idealistic agenda. Balloon Juice has determined this statistic-mongering to be hipster, click-bating contrarianism. And what of Paul Krugman, that defender of objective data from the political tests of punditry? Let’s just say he’s no longer a fan. At all.
And of course, it isn’t just Nate Silver. Those who exclusively read right-wing blogs might be surprised, but the left’s sneering dismissal of real journalism vehicles is catching up with your own. The opinion makers of the left treat newspaper and public radio journalists — as well as the consumers of the same — with growing disdain. And their reasons for doing so ring remarkably familiar to the ones I heard from the other side, twenty years ago: “They hire columnists that we don’t like/don’t agree with us.” Which is not to say that the opinion makers of the left don’t constantly point their audience toward recommended sources for news — they do. Read any of them, and you’ll see them make these recommendations all the time. It’s notable, however, that these recommendations are almost always for other left-wing pundits. Like the opinion makers of the 1990s right, today’s on the left are pushing the rank and file toward a pundit-only news stream.
The thing of it is, Krugman was right in 2012 when he said, “This is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign.” A-fishing-men. It’s one thing to take a piece by Nate Silver, or the NYT, or PRI and disagree with it — to lay out reasons why the reporting is flawed. It’s quite another to systematically delegitimise all forms of non-opinion journalism or other sources of data. (Like fact-checking organizations, for example.) Mind you, since Krugman was specifically talking about the right he was about 20 years too late. That ship has long since sailed, and the horses are so far away you can’t even see them from the barn door anymore. Any tiny shred of respectability the right had in that regard crashed and burned like a Jennifer Aniston rom-com about three minutes after Obama first took office.
But it’s still good advice for the left, who even now are only just dipping their toe into the waters of ultimate political cynicism to see if it’s really as nice as the Tea Party seems to think. Their opinion makers may be urging them to cast away objective data analysis, real reporting and fact checking that strays from the narrative, but despite this the left’s rank and file still buy the Times and listen to This American Life. And because of this Democratic Party leaders are able to stay firmly afoot in Reality Land. Say whatever critical thing you want about Hilary Clinton, she’s not bats**t crazy like her two female presidential-hopeful counterparts on the right. And of all the headaches Barack Obama has to deal with each day, trying to herd cats like these ain’t one of ‘em.
So, no — the left is not where the right is on this particular issue, nor are they anywhere close. But they’re pretty damn close to where the right was in the late 90s. No one back then saw today’s right in their future; why is it so hard to believe the left won’t go too far down the same path? All it would take, really, is for liberal opinion makers to continue on their current course — being rewarded by page hits, ratings, and accolades all the while — as the rank and file dismissed their every transgression with a flippant BSDI.
And what are the odds of that?