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Andrew Gelman: Is Nate Silver Paying Off Politico?


Andrew Gelman: My theory: Nate Silver is paying those Politico guys to say these silly things:

The question is, how could these guys at Politico say such foolish things (see John’s discussion here of some examples)? The usual explanation for smart people acting stupid is love, religion, or political ideology. But in this case I don’t see John Harris and Jim VandeHei being motivated by love or religion, and it seems to be part of their shtick that they don’t have much of an ideology. So here’s my theory… to stay on top, Nate needs to be continually contrasted with easy-to-hate enemies. But this isn’t so easy. There are no more polls to unskew, and at this point even the fools know to be careful not to tangle with Nate. So what does Nate do? He has to create some enemies…. He pays off the staff at Politico to pick a fight with him. And this reminds us of what we all love about 538. Nate cares about the truth, not about sound bites…. And what do the dudes at Politico get out of this? Beyond whatever Nate is paying them under the table, they get some short-term attention…. Win-win-win.

John Sides:

The Harris-VandeHei Interview Sells Even Politico Short: Apropos of a question about the contretemps between Nate Silver and some Politico reporters (mainly Dylan Byers) in the fall of 2012, John Harris avers that he didn’t read 538 during the election.  Silver quickly noted that Harris had listed 538 as one of his favorite blogs as of November 2010…. Former Politico reporter Ben Smith suggested that he may actually have written that list for Harris…


The Harris-VandeHei Interview Sells Even Politico Short: Following up on David’s post, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the New Republic interview with Politico co-founders John Harris and Jim VandeHei….

IC: If Washington, on a given day, is caught up in total nonsense, is there real value in covering total nonsense? If you give nonsense a microphone, that might lead to more nonsense. If you are a politician and you get covered for saying outrageous things, there is some incentive to say more outrageous things.

JVH: No doubt.

JH: There is also the chance that someone will call you a buffoon.

JVH: For people who have lost faith in politics, the market has corrected. If you think about people who became the Freak Show, the bombastic celebrities on the right—Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Allen West, Michele Bachmann—they all had their rise, they all got their fame, and they all flamed out because voters rejected them.

What VandeHei seems to suggest is that, no matter if Politico gets caught up in promoting “total nonsense” or “the Freak Show,” everything will work out because “the market” (or maybe “voters”?) will correct things…. This is wrong…. If the market corrects itself, it’s because the media does the correcting…. Narratives about politics are mostly written by the people who, well, write professionally about politics. Lynn and I… do what VandeHei might call “trying to use numbers to prove stuff.”  We show that more prevalent and favorable news coverage appeared to drive Cain’s poll numbers (although the reverse was not true). So what happened then?  How did the “market” correct itself?  It wasn’t because of what voters did.  It was because of what the media did.  Indeed, it was—at least in part—because of what Politico did:

During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to Politico.

And we know how the rest of the story goes.  So the end of Cain’s campaign was not brought about by “the market” or by voters.  Voters needed new information to “correct.”  Who provided the information?  Journalists…. VandeHei doesn’t appear to see this or believe this, even when his own publication was doing the work. This is one reason why it surprised me that Harris and VandeHei were snarky about investigative reporting like the New York Times’ series on corruption at the Long Island Railroad, and ultimately articulated an emaciated conception of newsworthiness as simply what is “interesting.”


We have an obligation to be interesting. We don’t think of ourselves as the electric company or the water company: “Well, we have a responsibility…” That was a mindset in a previous generation of journalists….

If Harris and VandeHei believed that “market corrections” were at least partially their responsibility, they might put “responsible” more at the heart of their news-gathering and reporting.  I would find a “responsible Politico” even more worth reading.