Saturday, July 20, 2013

One Writer's Take on Nate Silver to ESPN

A friend, who is pretty hooked up with the Democrats and has been published in the Times, sent me a long email on Nate Silver's slide from the NY Times to ESPN. I'm going to copy and paste it here......

Nate Silver's departure from the Times has really gotten me down that I felt like I had to put some extended thoughts down this morning to ease my mourning that you may find interesting (or may not in which case sorry for the rant and just click the the little garbage pail button). 

Silver's move really did catch me off guard, though really I'm not surprised. I think it speaks to the general state of media. Used to be that being the top guy at the Times was the pinnacle for any serious, smart, educated person. Sure, maybe you could make a little more elsewhere, but there is no outlet that brings the imprimatur that you get writing for the Times. It's a rush for intellectuals (I speak from some very limited experience and when the Times first ran a piece of mine I felt at that moment like some (half!) balding demigod). If I can be elitist, it's what thinking people read, what decision-makers read. Now, that's still true, but far less so than it's ever been. The marketplace is so crowded and diffused and no such monopoly exists anymore.

I know that Silver drove something like 60-70% of the Times' web traffic last fall, so I can guarantee they offered him a mint for a journalist/analyst. Probably an ungodly sum that made Pinchy Sulzberger blanch as the editors and web staff crowded around his office (then again, it's hard to crowd in the biggest office, more like, urgently lounged) and insisted (likely through loud dramatic hand gestures and the subdued impassioned terms limousine elites and people who wear wire-rimmed bifocals tend to favor) on Silver's unique importance. But first, they couldn't match the cash a soulless conglomerate like Disney could pony up anyway, and second, they couldn't offer the same broader opportunities. 

I've never been offered a job by the Times, but I can guess how it goes. Some editor says, "you will write for the New York Times," and then folds his/her arms in satisfaction, which, for five generations, had always been enough to sell just about anyone who grew up with images of pulitzers and national book awards dancing in their subconscious. No more. Disney probably told him he's already big enough that he doesn't need the Times' seal to sell books, and they'd offer more: opportunities for tv, more book deals signed directly at the tap, I bet they even floated movie possibilities. (Think about this a minute. You're a huge geek who two years ago ate 711 prewrapped turkey sandwiches three days a week for dinner and some Disney executive in a four thousand dollar suit, surrounded by smiling, silent junior execs in radiant two thousand dollar suits and pantsuits all smiling at you like lasers tells you in his 53rd floor office with gleaming windows themselves a story and a half high overlooking Central Park (or the Valley) that you, you, Nate Silver (or, alternatively, insert your name here for imaginative purposes) are the perfect basis of a movie. A movie. You. Like Lawrence of Arabia or Terry Malloy. Even if your bullshit meter has more attuned instruments and gyroscopes than a stealth bomber's radar, something tells me you (and I of course) would have a hard time not being intoxicated by the sweet sweet talk). So that's hard to say no to (though, I think being Keith Olberrman's intellectual Ed McMahon was selling himself way short) and I don't begrudge him in the least. He started as a blogger (incidentally, step back and look at his rise: from Dailykos contributor to world famous writer, millionaire, best selling author, read by the President -- in less than four years! Has anyone, anywhere had that kind of rise? It says much about how the media, and really the national culture of success and celebrity has evolved to the point that overnight stories like this are now not only possible, but common (and in Nate's case, unusually deserved)) and is now rich and famous beyond any conceivable dreams. 

But while I'm happy for him, I'm genuinely sad because it's an enormous loss for political media. As I've said endlessly, I've been endlessly impressed with Silver's intuitive understanding of American politics; it's uncanny. He is by far the sharpest (and being sharp is better than being simply smart) mind analyzing politics, and maybe even all news today. It's not even close. And that doesn't even include his numerical model which, by its own lonesome, is not only incredible but invaluable and is the most powerful single tool in electoral politics reporting/analysis today. Now, given his successes, it was always inevitable that he would slowly branch off to other areas (who could blame him for that, who wants to stay in the crushingly depressing gray thicket of politics (filled with ugly people who think they're beautiful) when Hollywood (filled with beautiful who know they're beautiful) is beckoning?), I think that this move will accelerate that change. And frankly, as most know, ABC's website is not only unremarkable (read: shit), but it lacks all of the flair, panache, and plain (and fun) readability of the Times' site which has long been (at least since 1998 when I first got ethernet and gleefully discovered the Internet) the best, most technological slick forum in the business, arguably in the world. Just for access, his work probably won't be as appealing (minus ABC getting religion and turning their website from BN to Amazon (go to both of their sites and see what I mean)) and any compulsive electoral watcher will say to that, that it sucks.

We all want to be the garage band underdog you can't help but root for, but that very aspiration has its own insoluble internal conflict: the little band wants to become the big band, to become rich as Croesus, to screw models of gravitationally impossible measurements, to prance around Dave Letterman's (or I guess, more appropriately now, Jimmy Kimmel's) desk smiling stupidly and answering stupider questions while people swoon in puppy love as if you were Socrates in Armani, one precludes the other, both in terms of social place but more importantly in your own appeal. When you go from Nixon to Kennedy (think 1960, not 1968/72), you're no longer easy to root for (no, this isn't a political statement, just a look at a side-by-side picture from 1960 and see what I'm talking about instantly) because you've achieved what everyone has yet to achieve (and deep down what they all feel and know they will never, ever achieve) so beneath any admiration is a jealousy, a jealousy which will give way once the novelty of I'm-so-happy-for-you wears off. When Nate is doing shows with Bill Simmons (fellow Disney-ABC-ESPN guru/genius/corporate servant, himself the original garage band-cum-Rolling Stones for goofy written sports chatter, a man who started with a tiny blog and became not just the top sportswriter in the country, but an insatiable cultural phenomenon who, despite after all these years still possesses an undeniable originality that surpasses 97.4% of his peers but yet nonetheless receives enormous bouquets of not-so-veiled hate criticism from people, like me, who irrationally (or I guess, as I've argued, somewhat rationally) resent not his quality but his success itself), part of me will appreciate what the picture of them together says about America in 2013, part of me will understand Silver's need and desire to make as rich a living as possible, and part of me will look at them both in sad, perky hatred. 

End of email.

There is something weird in Nate Silver moving to ESPN from the Times. If Silver is going to be writing on their site and playing sidekick to Olbermann, there will most likely be overt political messaging even with the sports talk show whatever thing they do. Silver was paid very well and receiving the huge status bump from writing for the NY Times. Silver's first work was PECOTA, so the allure of being at the premier sports media entity might have outweighed the premier journalism entity. Whatever the reasons, Silver got a huge payday.


Anonymous said...

There's already overt political messaging over at ESPN. Try going to espn's homepage and not seeing an article on gay issues in sports. Or try reading the majority of the articles at Grantland. It's basically all young SWPL writers.

Son of Brock Landers said...

Agreed about Grantland. On Twitter (SOBL1), I mock those SWPL fuckers. The main page is mostly soft messaging. Silver/Olbermann could endup being a combo of Olby's MSNBC hysterics with Silver's nerd number support.