Score This One for Nate Silver  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2012

Score This One for Nate Silver   

The New York Times’ public editor is off base in her criticism of his offer to bet critic Joe Scarborough on the election outcome. Fri., November 2, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


I'm a big fan of Margaret Sullivan. The former Buffalo News editor has gotten off to a fast start as the New York Times' public editor, taking strong stands and responding much more quickly than her predecessors with trenchant online responses to various Times controversies.

But she's way off base in her criticism of poll analyst to the stars Nate Silver.

Silver, who writes the highly regarded FiveThirtyEight blog for the Times, has driven conservatives crazy with his predictions, based on poll crunching carried out with his supersecret algorithm, that President Barack Obama is likely to win reelection. Last time I checked today, Silver was estimating Obama had an 80.9 percent chance of winning.

One of Silver's leading critics has been Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. Scarborough is a conservative and a former Republican congressman, but he's hardly a knee-jerk partisan. He has no problem attacking his ideological allies when he thinks they are wrong. But clearly Silver got under his skin.

With many national polls showing a tight contest between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Scarborough wrote, "Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a toss-up right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes."

In a sense, Silver and Scarborough are talking about different things. Silver's forecasts are based on the likelihood that a candidate will get enough electoral votes to win, which is worlds apart from the candidates' vote totals. Just ask Al Gore.

Silver, never lacking confidence in his number crunching, responded with the Inside the Beltway equivalent of "Let's take this outside": "If you think it's a toss-up," he tweeted, "let's bet. If Obama wins, you donate $1,000 to the American Red Cross. If Romney wins, I do. Deal?"

This did not sit well with Sullivan, who felt it was a violation of the Times' Way of Doing Things. She wrote that "the wager offer is a bad idea– giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.

"It's also inappropriate for a Times journalist, which is how Mr. Silver is seen by the public even though he's not a regular staff member."

I'm sorry, but this is one moral transgression I just can't get too worked up about. Why is backing up your prediction with cash any more partisan than making the prediction in the first place? This doesn't suggest to me that Silver is a true believer trying to sway an election. What it says is that he's a poll maven with no shortage of belief in his own handiwork who is willing if not eager to stand up to a TV pundit calling him names.

Good for him.

Sliver's stature rests on his ability to analyze what the poll numbers are telling us about campaigns. Does anybody really think that he'd put that at risk because of ideological fervor? After all, if he's wrong, we are going to know that very soon. And all the recent huffing and puffing over his assessments guarantees there will be no shortage of attention to how FiveThirtyEight's prognostications turn out.

So, Margaret Sullivan, keep up the good work. Keep commenting promptly and pointedly on what the Times is up to.

But this one was a swing and a miss.

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