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Walt Disney bags Nate Silver

The big story of the day is the career shift of the blogger who put statistics on the front page.

There’s really only one story this morning, at least as far as election watchers are concerned. Psephological guru Nate Silver has been poached from the New York Times and will be joining the Disney-owned sports channel, ESPN.

Sports forecasting and analysis was actually Silver’s original specialty; he first came to public attention for his work on baseball. But what really made his name was when he turned to politics and with his blog FiveThirtyEight produced strikingly accurate predictions of the 2008 presidential election.

In 2010 Silver was signed for a three-year contract by the Times, and became famous as a hate figure for Republicans during the 2012 election when his patiently analytical method of looking at the evidence contrasted sharply with their magical anti-Obama thinking. Silver, of course, was vindicated by the result, and on the expiry of his contract this year is pretty much able to dictate his own terms. Disney, with its vast media empire, will give him scope that not even the Times could provide.

Few details have been announced, but it appears that Silver will still do some political analysis, while broadening his work more into sports and other areas. He will also feature regularly on American ABC News, another Disney-owned operation. But to the extent that he devotes less time to politics, Silver will be missed.

And that’s true even though Silver’s type of work is not all there is to political journalism, and indeed not even the most important part. To some extent, in fact, Silver is a symptom of unhealthy trends: the obsession with the “horse race” of politics rather than the underlying issue, and the tendency of media organisations to put their money into punditry (which by and large comes cheap, although Silver by now most certainly does not) rather than old-fashioned investigation.

But what Silver showed is that there’s a big difference between reporting the horse race well and doing it badly. Those who pontificated in ignorance of the actual data and treated their hunches as more important than such mundane things as polls and precedents were repeatedly made to look very silly indeed.

Matt Yglesias at Slate has a nice if slightly dark appreciation of Silver’s achievement:

… with all due respect to Silver, his ability to beat the armchair analysis of the TV pundits is much more a story about the TV pundits being morons than it is a story about Silver having an amazingly innovative analytic method.

… He’s a fantastic and engaging writer, who not only came up with an election forecasting method that far outpaces the TV pundits but more impressively he found a large audience for it. After all, even though the TV pundits’ methods are totally wrong and arbitrary they don’t do what they do for no reason. The idea is that it makes good television. And you don’t crowd out terrible analysis just by doing better analysis, you have to find the better analysis and find a way to make it compelling to people. That’s what Nate Silver accomplished.

For more on the background, don’t go past Marc Tracy at the New Republic. He understands the difference between what Silver does and the traditional journalism of the Times and others (now in a sad and precipitous decline). Published polls and the like will only get you so far; you need to dig deeper, and put serious resources into digging, if you want to know what’s really going on behind the scenes and why.

That’s not what Silver does – but what he does, he does well. The message is that the horse race isn’t everything (nor has Silver ever claimed it is), but that if you’re going to cover it, you’ll do a better job if you rely on the facts.

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