Nate Silver, editor-and-chief of fivethirtyeight.com, a polling analysis and prediction website, had a rough Election Night, as his final odds favoring a Hillary Clinton victory were wrecked by reality. Yet, Silver was relatively less wrong about the presidential election results than most other outlets (including his former colleagues at the New York Times and mocking liberal Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post), with numbers consistently south of the 95-plus percentage chances for a Hillary victory that other outlets were spouting.
Silver also constantly hedged his more modest pro-Hillary statistical predictions with reminders that her victory was far from guaranteed. Indeed, Silver’s prediction, in the final hours before the election, that Trump had a 29% of winning was mocked by liberals as being far too generous to Trump. (How did that turn out, anyway?)
Friday’s hindsight analysis by Silver came with a provocative headline, “There Really Was a Liberal Media Bubble.” It’s part of a continuing series reviewing “news coverage of the 2016 general election, explores how Donald Trump won and why his chances were underrated by most of the American media.” One reason: "The political diversity of journalists is not very strong, either....only 7 percent of them identified as Republicans."
Last summer, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in what bettors, financial markets and the London-based media regarded as a colossal upset. Reporters and pundits were quick to blame the polls for the unexpected result. But the polls had been fine, more or less: In the closing days of the Brexit campaign, they’d shown an almost-even race, and Leave’s narrow victory (by a margin just under 4 percentage points) was about as consistent with them as it was with anything else. The failure was not so much with the polls but with the people who were analyzing them.
The U.S. presidential election, as I’ve argued, was something of a similar case. No, the polls didn’t show a toss-up, as they had in Brexit. But the reporting was much more certain of Clinton’s chances than it should have been based on the polls. Much of The New York Times’s coverage, for instance, implied that Clinton’s odds were close to 100 percent. In an article on Oct. 17 -- more than three weeks before Election Day -- they portrayed the race as being effectively over, the only question being whether Clinton should seek a landslide or instead assist down-ballot Democrats.
(NewsBusters cataloged another premature New York Times’ victory lap two weeks before Trump’s shocking win: “Victory In Sight, Clinton Presses Beyond Trump – Appeals to Vote Early – With Lead in the Polls, She Turns to Backing Other Democrats.”)
This is not to say the election was a toss-up in mid-October, which was one of the high-water marks of the campaign for Clinton. But while a Trump win was unlikely, it should hardly have been unthinkable. And yet the Times, famous for its “to be sure” equivocations, wasn’t even contemplating the possibility of a Trump victory.
He cited James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds” and used it to reveal the hidden cracks in the media’s wall of conventional wisdom.
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The political diversity of journalists is not very strong, either. As of 2013, only 7 percent of them identified as Republicans (although only 28 percent called themselves Democrats with the majority saying they were independents). And although it’s not a perfect approximation -- in most newsrooms, the people who issue endorsements are not the same as the ones who do reporting -- there’s reason to think that the industry was particularly out of sync with Trump...
Independence? This is just as much of a problem. Crowds can be wise when people do a lot of thinking for themselves before coming together to exchange their views. But since at least the days of “The Boys on the Bus,” political journalism has suffered from a pack mentality....
Decentralization? Surowiecki writes about the benefit of local knowledge, but the political news industry has become increasingly consolidated in Washington and New York as local newspapers have suffered from a decade-long contraction. That doesn’t necessarily mean local reporters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Ohio should have picked up Trumpian vibrations on the ground in contradiction to the polls. But as we’ve argued, national reporters often flew into these states with pre-baked narratives -- for instance, that they were “decreasingly representative of contemporary America” -- and fit the facts to suit them, neglecting their importance to the Electoral College. A more geographically decentralized reporting pool might have asked more questions about why Clinton wasn’t campaigning in Wisconsin, for instance, or why it wasn’t more of a problem for her that she was struggling in polls of traditional bellwethers such as Ohio and Iowa....
Against the conventional wisdom, Silver argued that big news sources have actually gained, not lost influence as the internet matures.
There was once a notion that whatever challenges the internet created for journalism’s business model, it might at least lead readers to a more geographically and philosophically diverse array of perspectives. But it’s not clear that’s happening, either. Instead, based on data from the news aggregation site Memeorandum, the top news sources (such as the Times, The Washington Post and Politico) have earned progressively more influence over the past decade.
Silver blames this partly on the decline of blogs, either through folding or being bought by larger news outlets. He concluded fittingly:
But in a case like politics where the conventional wisdom can congeal so quickly -- and yet has so often been wrong -- a certain amount of contrarianism can go a long way.