Lessons from Sullivan-Silver fracas

When digital and institutional cultures collide

Before the Margaret Sullivan/Nate Silver episode fades into history, there are a couple of meta lessons to be drawn from the clash of news cultures that it represents.

For the non-cognoscenti, Sullivan is the Public Editor of The New York Times, a news organization that, more than ever, is the living symbol of institutional media. Silver is a statistician by training and blogger by trade, author of the popular FiveThiryEight blog that offers a disciplined, data-driven form of political analysis. In the scheme of things, Silver represents a breed of journalist—digitally based and data-centric—that is still relatively new.

On Thursday, Silver makes a light-hearted bet to demonstrate confidence in his models with MSNBC analyst/talking-head Joe Scarborough; Sullivan calls the bet “inappropriate”—and a fairly intense Internet storm ensues: hundreds of comments on the post itself, many blog posts from the mostly professional blogosphere, many Twitter remarks, almost all of them defending Silver and critical of Sullivan. Poynter rounded up the reaction. Sullivan wrote a response to the response.

A lot of commenters and bloggers noted the threat that Silver’s brand of reporting represents to traditional political analysis, or what passes for it, and said the reason he was popular even before the Times took him on in 2010 is that his data-based, rigorously modeled approach is superior. That is no doubt true.

Still, couple of things:

First, I’d note the intensity of the reaction, particularly from commenters, compared to the minor nature of the event: a foot-fault, at most, by a blogger, followed by fairly mild criticism by the public editor. The response was notable not just for the quantity but for the heat, with a lot of it along these lines:

I find it appalling that the editor of the Times would publicly take Nate Silver and chastise him in front of everyone. If I were Nate, I’d pack up my desk and leave the Times, when he can. He was a strong brand before the Times relationship and can be after.

Can’t say that I’ve been as mad at the Times in the past 50 years of reading it then I am over this slap in the face of someone who is respected but due to the nature of the subject is always attacked.

A longstanding complaint against institutional media, even before the Internet, was its he-said/she said habits, playing things safely down the middle and then justifying itself by saying, “well, if both sides are mad, we must be right.” This is something Silver doesn’t do, and people are grateful for it (especially, these days, Obama voters, since Silver is now putting his chances to win at better than 80 percent, which sounds like a lock, even though it isn’t).

So a lot of the reaction, was, “Finally, someone who calls it like he sees it and backs up his analysis with facts, and he’s the one you criticize?”

But it’s the very narrow point that needs a bit of attention: the bet.

I read a lot of the anger at Sullivan’s criticism as another way of saying, “You can come down off your pedestal now, New York Times. It’s a new day. You’re no better from the rest of us.”

And it is true, that, as many have noted, the digital age in journalism has been marked by a process of unbundling the old newspaper package: it’s a literal dis-integration of the form as the whole can be taken apart and reassembled almost at will. (Interestingly, the paper’s paywall has rebundled the paper to large degree; you have to pay for the whole thing, even if parts can still be taken apart and flung about.) What’s more, there’s been the blurring of the edges of institutions like the Times, as bloggers who, like Silver, are often not full-time staffers now provide a lot of content and, for many, a reason to read the paper. All these have threatened the “integrity” of the paper, not in the sense of “its soundness of moral character,” but in the second definition, its “state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.”

Sullivan’s no-betting admonishment can be read as a way of trying to redraw the line around the institution. It’s not a question of better or worse, but it’s about being different. News organizations have to change radically, adopt new mores and styles, and conform in ways large and small to a new news culture. But on the other hand, they shouldn’t dissolve into the new culture altogether.

I make the case for journalism institutions here. But even apart from big-picture arguments, different is good, right? Even if the line may look increasingly arbitrary, in fact it’s not. So inside this line there will be certain rules, even if others have no use for them. The rules have to be smart, of course, but rules emphasize the differentness, the integrity, if you will, of The New York Times from the vastness of the Internet that is not The New York Times.

I think it’s a good exercise, even if the betting issue might not have been the cleanest one. Columnists, which is what Silver is, get a lot more latitude than news reporters in expressing themselves; and newspapers haven’t always been the prim, mineral-water-drinking institutions they are today. Still, a rough consensus formed: Most agree that whether or not the bet was appropriate, it’s probably not a good idea for columnists to make a habit of it. The process wasn’t pretty, but that’s engagement for you.

The real lesson of the episode is that despite all the heat the clash of institutional/digital cultures wasn’t much of a clash at all. Views were exchanged. Life goes on.

What was surprising about the episode wasn’t that it showed the incompatibility of digital and institutional cultures, but the opposite.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.