The glib replies, the same defeats

I’ve been on the fence about so-called data journalism for some time. Two of my favorite commentators — Jim Newell and Elias Isquith — have eviscerated the idea, with Newell putting it best:

The only thing separating Ezra Klein from David Broder at this point is six feet of dirt.

On the other hand, even if the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, I’d still like to think that the enemy of both New Republic/David Brooks and Politico/Scarborough (or both Mike Gerson and Chuck Lane) is certainly my friend. But maybe not, as Tim F points out with Nate Silver:

I get why you would hire a guy like Pielke – breezy contrarianism fits the house brand and will certainly generate a lot more site traffic than same-oldy bad news written at a higher reading level by people who do know what they are talking about. It is a good business decision. I just wish it did not, you know, matter.

Or as John pointed out with Ezra Klein:

The problem with hiring Ambrosino is not that Klein isn’t entitled to bring someone on board whose views the gay community finds distasteful. It’s that Ambrosino’s quick rise to notoriety—and now, his ticket aboard the profession’s hottest new upstart—is an object lesson in the way new media equates click-bait contrarianism with serious thought and gives hacks a platform in the name of ideological balance.

If you think that you can’t turn Slatepitches and even-the-liberal-New-Republic into Very Serious Infographics, you’re in for a big surprise.

Meet the new wonks, same as the Villagers.

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73 replies
  1. 1
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    Is this the Department of Redundancy Department?

  2. 2
    DougJ says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate:

    No, I thought that Tim’s post fit into a larger context.

  3. 3
    warren says:

    Maybe my favorite EC song of all time. You ever notice that the drums are basically upside-down? Pete’s playing the actual beat on the cymbals and just using the drums as accents. I once read an interview where he said he laid that track down blind drunk and has never been able to play it like that since.

  4. 4
    J.Ty says:

    Not news to those who read my ramblings (suckers!), but I’ve been down on Nate Silver’s political instincts ever since he said he was a liberaltarian (but his 2012 analysis was still good). (Sam Wang’s was better, of course.) And I’m not surprised about Klein either. He left a good thing behind at the Loss Leader to try and one-up Slate, which it should be noted is also owned by Jeff Bezos.

    Silver’s good with numbers, though, I’ll give him that, even though he does like to pretend he invented the idea of using Bayesian stuffs to analyze sociological data sometimes. Klein… was always a good wonk, insofar as explaining policy goes. I dunno. I won’t be surprised if The Vox or whatever turns out to be just terrible, but I’d be happy to be wrong. 538, I’m pretty much convinced will do Freakonomics-style trolling.

  5. 5
    Howard Beale IV says:

    Bingo. Like slapping a label on a box of software and saying it’s now “User Friendly!”. Gaah.

  6. 6
    dp says:

    I really don’t understand why this is posited as an either-or debate.

  7. 7
    srv says:

    The only thing separating Ezra Klein from David Broder at this point is six feet of dirt.

    Tim F. hates manicheans and thinks there’s some room for nuance here.

  8. 8
    C.J. says:


    You’re dead-on about the Freakonomics style trolling. Already read a sports article over there (the one about drafting a QB in the first round vs. yards per attempt) that essentially admitted in its last line that the whole exercise was futile. Just a paean to the numbers god, or something, without even being good sports analytics.

  9. 9
    NotMax says:

    Here’s a thought:

    If you don’t care for a writer, don’t read his or her writing.

  10. 10
    BGinCHI says:

    My hands are clammy and cunning and I’d like to put them around David Brooks’s neck. There is no greater charlatan.

    Actually, a working, laboring charlatan would have to sweat it and keep moving in fear that he/she would be discovered and pilloried. But not Brooks.

    He lives in a habitat without predators or evolutionary consequences.

  11. 11
    DougJ says:


    Tell that fucking bullshit to the tourists.

  12. 12
    Jane2 says:

    @NotMax: But then how could bloggers go on at length about other people few have heard of and gin up a controversy?

  13. 13
    ruemara says:

    Hmmm. I need to find a way to write contrarian bullshit, without strangling myself in my sleep. Because, conscience. I suppose I should be highly disappointed at both ventures spearheaded by people I’ve respected, however, I’m not. Just average disappointment. People have bubbles of socio-economic privilege. Even if they’re right most of the time, there’s going to be some uncomfortable blind spots when they gain power. Oh, Lord, let me become rich and powerful, so I may expose my blind spots.

  14. 14
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    OT: The Aussies announced that studies of satellite imagery have revealed two floating objects in the Indian Ocean that may be wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. They have diverted an Orion patrol aircraft to search the area. Source

  15. 15
    NotMax says:


    All the hand wringing and rending of garments is reminiscent of what transpired when it was announced that Mr. Stewart was going to take a break from his comedy channel show.

  16. 16
    David Koch says:

    How many Divisions do the juicebox-contrarians have?

  17. 17
    Suffern ACE says:

    @ruemara: it’s not that hard. “I’m a liberal, but I’ve been think that in light of (anecdote 1), is it really that much of a stretch to believe (conservative conventional wisdom)?”

  18. 18
    trollhattan says:

    @David Koch:

    All of them, Katie.

  19. 19
    Jane2 says:

    @NotMax: Ah, but then the new Messiah in the form of John Oliver was revealed, and the blogliterati turned as one, proclaiming him worthy.

    Seriously, in this blog post, I’ve heard of Nate Silver (legit, but I’d rather watch paint dry than actully read him), Ezra Klein (barely heard of and don’t care), David Broder (ditto)…every other name is a mystery.

    Jesus wept.

  20. 20
    DougJ says:

    @David Koch: @trollhattan:

    Wish there was a like button up in here.

  21. 21
    smintheus says:

    Speaking of numbers guys, I wonder what the cost is nowadays of those hand-sewn suit jackets that NS has taken to wearing lately?

  22. 22
    NotMax says:

    @David Koch

    How many Divisions do the juicebox-contrarians have?

    Sadly, they don’t divide, they only multiply.

  23. 23
    DougJ says:


    Hey, I’d be a bespoke cat if I had the scratch too.

  24. 24
  25. 25
    🍀 Martin says:

    If you think that you can’t turn Slatepitches and even-the-liberal-New-Republic into Very Serious Infographics, you’re in for a big surprise.

    Of course you can, but does it necessarily conclude with that? The whole field is being judged by one experiment 3 days old and another that’s been classified and deemed a failure before it’s even launched.

    But nobody has commented on one that has been a pretty resounding success. ProPublica is also a data-driven journalism outfit, and I’ve never heard a single accusation leveled toward them about creeping Broderism. They’ve been the go-to source for TARP and the auto bailouts, events surrounding Katrina, graft and unaccountability in the medical field and others. They’re doing a very interesting job on unpaid internships now. They’ve put forth a variety of data tools and provide API access to their datasets.

    I don’t know. This strikes me as a parallel to Republican’s determination that all government is terrible because Jimmy Carter.

    And Tim F’s screed can be largely dismissed because it appears he got Nate Silver’s new hire mixed up with his dad. So unless we’re endorsing a sins of the father model of meritocracy, Tim stumbled on this one, and then you tripped over him.

  26. 26
    The Dangerman says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate:

    The Aussies announced that studies of satellite imagery have revealed two floating objects in the Indian Ocean that may be wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

    This is destined to be a lonnnnnnnnnnng investigation; if memory serves, they had wreckage from Air France pretty quickly but it took them two years to find the black boxes. In this case, assuming the plane flew that far, the voice recorder will be less than useless; it’s on a 2 hour loop. I think the flight data recorder will have the entire flight but I’m not sure it will be all that useful (if this is the plane, it flew just fine).

    This is sounding more and more like the Payne Stewart scenario … though, I suppose a whacked out suicide plot to make it look like the Payne Stewart scenario could be the cause. Lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng investigation (and I kinda doubt we ever get a definitive answer).

  27. 27
    smintheus says:

    @DougJ: It’s a heavy investment in visuals for a self-described geek.

  28. 28
    DougJ says:

    @🍀 Martin:

    I don’t think ProPublica is data journalism.

  29. 29
    NotMax says:

    @The Dangerman

    If it turns out the instigating event was someone firing up a joint in the john…

    (Too soon?)

  30. 30
    Tripod says:

    @David Koch:

    Are we sending troops in?


    Then why should I give a fuck?

  31. 31
    smintheus says:

    @🍀 Martin: Good journalism begins with facts. What is your point? The issue is what facts do you use and what you do with them.

  32. 32
    MikeJ says:

    @The Dangerman: It wasn’t that long ago that if a plane or a ship disappeared at sea people would say, “that’s too bad, I’ll guess we’ll never know what happened.” Today, people expect that they will find out what happened. They simply aren’t used to idea that there are things that nobody knows, and that nobody may ever know.

  33. 33
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    I’m with you. I’m in my mid sixties and the number of things that I actually give a shit about become fewer and fewer. I don’t feel any compulsion to watch the news, read Very Important Bloggers, own a smartphone, or fret about things over which I have no control. Despite that my life seems to me to be full and pretty satisfying.

  34. 34
    David Koch says:

    Int’l Business Times says the MH370 has been found

  35. 35
    J.Ty says:

    @🍀 Martin: ProPublica is also non-profit. Makes for a hell of a different content model usually.

  36. 36
    The Dangerman says:


    If it turns out the instigating event was someone firing up a joint in the john…

    I hope not; having people pass on with the munchies would be wrong.

    My money’s on the lithium batteries but, again, I’m not sure they will ever really know. Hell, the Egypt Air flight still isn’t agreed upon by all parties and TWA 800 isn’t exactly 100% settled (well, most of complaints are from cranks).

  37. 37
    🍀 Martin says:

    @DougJ: Why? I mean, not all of it is, but much of what they’re known for definitely is. They were cutting through a ton of bullshit regarding the bailouts by showing exactly how much was coming in, and from who, how much was still due, and from who, what assets treasury was still holding and what they were worth, the auto makers and so on, and then drawing conclusions saying that TARP would at worst break even, auto makers would lose some as would AIG, but far less than what anyone was saying, and that freddy/fannie loans were probably lost.

    They never got bogged down with bullshit ideology, whether this would incentivize future misdeeds by personifying the banks, or whether Greenspan or Clinton was at fault. It laid out exactly what was happening from the data and drawing clear conclusions from the data – conclusions that NOBODY other than Geithner and Obama was making. There’s no way you couldn’t view it as being contrarian because every other journalist and pundit was saying something very different from them.

  38. 38
    Kazanir says:

    All y’all need to give Silver a break. I’ve read interviews with him where he clearly stated that the only reason for his success in politics is that the bar was set so incredibly f’ing low to begin with. (Due to the intense, pervasive hackery that dominates our talking-head class.) He knows the score, and we also know that he clearly had the chops to succeed in sports well before the politics thing happened.

    “Data-driven” isn’t a panacea for everything, and 30% of it is just branding. But the other 70% is the difference between winning an election and not having a concession speech prepared for your loss. I can tell you which side of that divide I’d rather be on — it is Silver’s side.

    A bunch of left-wing blogs deciding to get their hate on for Silver puts them in the same place as Joe Scarborough and pretty much the entire rest of the Village and I’m not really comfortable with that location. What’s so disturbing about a guy with a spreadsheet?

  39. 39
    trollhattan says:

    @The Dangerman:

    The FDR will divulge whether the controls were being used, and therein lies the tale. And what’s with the two-hour cycle for the voice recorder? Is that an old-technology limitation (tape loop)? Seems like they’d use digital, at least for new planes.

    Not getting my hopes up, but they wouldn’t have held the presser had they not felt the sightings were significant (I guess).

  40. 40
    Suffern ACE says:

    @The Dangerman: it was an international flight on an Asian Carrier so at least the snacks were still complimentary. If it were a United flight, those passengers would be spending a small fortune for a bag of shrimp crackers and a diet Coke.

  41. 41
    DougJ says:


    What’s so disturbing about a guy with a spreadsheet?

    Nothing, til he hires Roger Pielke.

  42. 42

    How to get into the village without having to massage Sally Quinn’s feet?

  43. 43
    MikeJ says:

    @The Dangerman:

    My money’s on the lithium batteries

    The 777 doesn’t have the same electrical system as the 787. The 787 is the one that had all the battery fires.

  44. 44
    The Dangerman says:


    It wasn’t that long ago that if a plane or a ship disappeared at sea people would say, “that’s too bad, I’ll guess we’ll never know what happened.”

    For those into historical mysteries, check out the search for Earhart’s plane; there’s quite a lot of evidence it landed on an island called Nikumaroro (just no smoking gun …. yet).

  45. 45
    🍀 Martin says:

    @J.Ty: And that is a much more useful point, and one that I’ve been making for years. Doug is expressing skepticism about open access for-profit data journalism, that it seems to be following the same route as all other forms of open access for-profit journalism. Hmm. What’s the common denominator here? Maybe that their product isn’t journalism but page views and ad-clicks? Perhaps the business model is the problem, not the form of journalism.

  46. 46
    Amir Khalid says:

    @David Koch:
    Not funny.

  47. 47
    The Dangerman says:


    The 787 is the one that had all the battery fires.

    I’m referring to the cargo hold shipment. I think they were lithium but getting late; damn, now I gotta google…

    …ok, not much, but I can sleep better.

  48. 48

    @J.Ty: He left a good thing behind at the Loss Leader to try and one-up Slate, which it should be noted is also owned by Jeff Bezos.

    I thought Bezos left Slate behind with the Graham family.

  49. 49
    David Koch says:

    Ok, I didn’t think Kristen Bell could get hawter, but she did.

  50. 50
    smintheus says:

    @Kazanir: His side? He didn’t invent or radically improve poll aggregation, which was quite accurate years before he appeared on the scene. What NS did do is insert a strong element of mysticism, arbitrary qualifications, and poorly examined/justified assumptions that tended to negate or at least undermine the empiricism he wrapped his work in. The results have sometimes been rather bizarre. Did you follow his pre-election analysis of the last British general election? He wiped his feet on the poll results and came up with ridiculous predictions – the worst I saw anywhere.

  51. 51
    J.Ty says:

    @🍀 Martin: I suppose my hate-on for what became of these two wunderkindern might have blindsided me to the nuance, but… I dunno, when I see the word ‘journalism’ nowadays I think ‘for-profit journalism’ because everything else is just blogging, and we all know that isn’t real.

    Isn’t Doug some kinda STEM guy? It seems weird to infer that a loathing for “data-driven journalism” is a loathing for “data-driven _______”. So when I see him type that I guess I just insert ‘for-profit’.

  52. 52

    @Kazanir: This:

    doesn’t change your opinion? Or the hiring of the anti-gay gay guy? Want anything else?

  53. 53
    J.Ty says:

    @Phil Perspective: Ah, you’re right. Good call, Bezos!

  54. 54
    🍀 Martin says:

    @smintheus: There’s very different types of facts. There are anecdotal facts (the blue chevy blazer crashed on I-17 eastbound at 8:03 PM) and data facts (23% of chevy blazers suffered fuel pump failure in the first year of purchase). Good journalism has always centered around the former, because the latter is almost entirely a product of Moore’s law. You can’t really do data journalism without big data, and you need computers and algorithms to do that in a meaningful way. And even for most of the period that we’ve had adequate computing power to do it, we didn’t have an organizational structure that allowed datasets to be widely disseminated nor did we have tools to let you get through that data in an efficient enough way for information discovery.

    Can you draw bad conclusions from data journalism? Absolutely. You can enter it with the same biases as anything else. The advantage to date journalism is that you have more opportunities (should you take them) to validate your conclusions and avoid those biases. Different data sets, different collection methods, anecdotal outlier data can actually help you in this case. In traditional journalism, getting truly independent verification of information is fucking hard, and often impossible.

    I’m not suggesting that data journalism leads to better outcomes, just that it doesn’t necessarily lead to bad outcomes. DougJ is implying above that it necessarily leads to bad outcomes. I don’t even agree that traditional journalism leads to bad outcomes. My thesis has always been that for-profit journalism leads to bad outcomes.

  55. 55
    srv says:

    Wasn’t it Ezra that thought there might be some common ground which some libertarians and progressives could meet?

    And now y’all are just burning Nate’s new house down because he might have to punch a few hippies. Surely we can throw him a Jane Fonda bit or two?

    If DFH’s would just be more willing to throw a few malcontents under the bus, they might spend less time there.

  56. 56
    DougJ says:

    @🍀 Martin:

    I also think data journalism might lead to better outcomes…but not if it becomes Slate with better info graphics Data journalism is not a panacea.

  57. 57
    🍀 Martin says:


    Nothing, til he hires Roger Pielke.

    Which one? Jr or Sr. Sr is the climate denier. Nate hired Jr. who is the policy guy. Tim F links to Srs wikipedia page and describes Sr.

    I’m not saying Jr doesn’t deserve criticism here, and other critics of the piece seem clear on who they’re referring to, but Tim F is clearly referring to the wrong person. And you’re citing Tim, so it’s not clear that you know who you’re referring to.

  58. 58
    NotMax says:


    Guess the answer to the question posed here is Vox?

  59. 59
    🍀 Martin says:


    I suppose my hate-on for what became of these two wunderkindern might have blindsided me to the nuance, but… I dunno, when I see the word ‘journalism’ nowadays I think ‘for-profit journalism’ because everything else is just blogging, and we all know that isn’t real.

    But that wasn’t always true. TV news, at least, used to always be a money loser. The networks dumped money into the news outfit because the only way to keep their FCC license was to air local and national news every day. That kept the news clean. Nobody expected Walter Cronkite to appeal to the 19-35 demo in order to move Vîagra ads. And clean TV news helped keep other news clean as well.

    CNN is really what wrecked the house. CNN moved news from money-losing to money-making, by necessity. Once they could start to cover stupid pet tricks on CNN, broadcast news followed suit along with the morning shows. There was no countervailing force to keep news clean, and instead there was a proven business model to make it profitable, so it just expanded, and with 24 hours to fill plus competition, it just all went to shit. Blogging was about the only thing to attempt to balance things until outfits like ProPublica, and they’re just too tiny to have any real influence.

  60. 60
    J.Ty says:

    @🍀 Martin: I have a somewhat mixed relationship with technology and journalism. Technological advancements always seem to make what’s easy to get worse (cheap printing, USPS, telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, cable, Internet), but vastly expand the amount of good stuff that’s out there, and that you can get if you try a little. And how hard you have to try to find the good stuff gets way smaller each cycle.

    Plus, nobody actually watches cable news regularly except for the people whose minds aren’t going to be changed by it. We have to struggle to hit a 60% voting rate in this (post-suffragist, post-Jim Crow) country… as much as I love to hate the cable channels (well really only two of them), I just don’t know how much any of this really matters. Back when Cronkite was in charge, things weren’t particularly better or worse. FDR lied about his polio to win votes for his first election in certain areas and nobody could really get a picture of him to disprove it, and that got us the New Deal.


    ETA: The only thing you can really safely say about new communications technology is that it will be used to make stock market trades happen even faster.

  61. 61
    annagranfors says:

    “the glib replies, the same defeats…”

    Yeah, I gave up battling with the bottle a while ago. Anaesthetized seems to be a better state to be in as the world burns.

    I got a feeling we’re gonna get a lot of grief. And nothing’s been beyond belief for well over a decade and change, now…

  62. 62
    srv says:

    @J.Ty: Back in the day, we had three networks of stenographers with a monopoly on the news. But it was clean news.

  63. 63
    J.Ty says:

    @srv: I don’t really understand how that’s clean, unless you’re being sarcastic. If you’re saying that it didn’t have a profit motive, of course it did, it was just a little more indirect.

  64. 64
    srv says:

    @J.Ty: Channeling Martin’s usage of “clean” above.

    But IMO, it was just more Madmen, less Gaga.

  65. 65
    piratedan says:

    well sometimes I guess I get a bit leery about numbers themselves as being the end all/be all of analysis of everything from the worth of a professional athlete to whether or not Dems are doomed in the next round of Congressional elections.

    Context is important and you can have just as much Broderism baked into your numbers as you wish depending upon who is doing the interpretation and what those folks want to sell or promote those numbers as meaning…..

    True story, worked at a software company for 19+ years, one of the reasons I was let go was that it didn’t appear that I was working very hard (they said) because my service call metrics showed that I was taking less time to solve calls than my peers (so said that sad lady on the other end of the phone who was laying me off). My rejoinder was that after 19 years, I would certainly hope that it would take me less time to solve an issue than my peers when I had 15+ years of experience on them……

    pregnant silence followed which was broken by the comment, who do you want to clear out your desk?

    so maybe that was simply a bullshit excuse that they used to axe me (and my salary) and maybe the numbers can mean or imply more than one position regarding the effectiveness or lack thereof of any particular position or policy depending upon your POV/agenda/methodology…. as always, context is important and we never seem to have enough of it thanks to our media and whoever is setting the agenda.

  66. 66
    Elizabelle says:

    @🍀 Martin:

    My thesis has always been that for-profit journalism leads to bad outcomes.

    Yep. And being afraid to insult viewers, and advertisers, by reporting news that does not meet their biases.

    You’re right about CNN, which led the way for Fox News, and the 24 hour all news cycle, little of it essential, all of it breathlessly presented.

  67. 67
    srv says:

    @piratedan: You can be comforted by the fact that the decider was either a total idiot or just an asshole. Or maybe both.

    In any case, it doesn’t reflect on you.

  68. 68
    piratedan says:

    @srv: tyvm for that and yeah, I’ve moved on but I guess I was trying to point out that while the use of the numbers is a handy tool, sometimes an unhandy tool is the one who interprets the numbers and extracts a wholly unanticipated meaning… or to quote that great philosopher Montoya…. “I don’t think it means, what you think it means….”

  69. 69
    Kazanir says:

    @Phil Perspective:

    The anti-gay gay guy was hired by Ezra who I’m not talking about. Why are you bringing him up?

  70. 70

    Pretty sure this thread is dead, but…

    I put Silver where I put Krugman. They are experts in a specific field, election probability crunching for the former and economics for the latter. This does not translate to politics, where they are no smarter than the rest of us. Ezra was the same way with the ACA, analyzing its content and breaking it down beautifully for the common man. Alas, he’s been off that beat for a long time, now.

  71. 71
    Marc says:

    @Phil Perspective: Citing Matt Stoller around here is likely to change our opinion in favor of Nate Silver.

  72. 72
    mk3872 says:

    Love the Costello title references!!

    “Keep your finger on important issues, with crocodile tears and a pocket full of tissues. I’m just an oily slick with …”

    That’s all I can remember off the top of my head. From Imperial Bedroom … Classic!

  73. 73
    burnspbesq says:

    I don’t suppose it occurred to you to wait until there was an actual track record before passing judgment.

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