Compounded by a treatable case of socialmediaphobia, Todd was displaying a bit of old-fashioned caution, ducking behind the curtain of “I’m just a reporter, folks.” How out of touch. Campaign 2012 has seen news outlets go ever more deeply into making news, not merely reporting on it. They don’t just conduct polls, as they have for years. They have embraced the art of computer modeling, generating a constantly revised picture of the national political scene.
More noise than illumination, you might suppose. Perhaps, but only if you ignore all the noise that the media’s long-standing pundit-centric product has churned out for decades.
Watch for it: Just as fact-checking operations have gone viral across journalism in recent years, modeling and forecasting franchises are poised for multiplication. These days, the New York Times, Real Clear Politics and the Huffington Post run highly trafficked poll-aggregation machines offering a look at toss-up states, who’s got the lead and a lot of other stuff you didn’t realize you were curious about. Other organizations that matter in political coverage — from the major networks, including NBC, to cable outlets to newspapers and universities — sponsor their own polling, offer their own number-crunching services on polls or both.
Bruises attach as easily to the pollsters and forecasters as they do to the fact-checkers and political reporters, all of whom sustain bias allegations and general nastiness in the course of business. The hazard of these occupations is that, at some point, you’ll have to issue information that displeases one side or the other. When you do, there are a bunch of people on Twitter ready to overreact.
Nate Silver, the brain behind the mile-deep polling analysis at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, has made news this election cycle as both modeling guru and punching bag. Silver’s blog aggregates and analyzes massive amounts of poll data and organizes them into clean, snapshot impressions of who’s up and who’s down in the presidential race and other contests. The FiveThirtyEight model has consistently favored President Obama over Romney, creating an obvious opening for critics. MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough, in a remark that reflects many conservatives’ reactions to Silver’s oeuvre, recently suggested that the poll aggregator was an ideologue and a joke.
The swell of Silver-centric commentary in the campaign’s home stretch leaves search engines with a bit of sorting to do. When he’s not getting slammed for putting out results that favor Obama, he’s being applauded for his quantitative rigor or his understanding of his craft. Politico, AtlanticWire, BuzzFeed, The Post and others have all weighed in.