Say it again: Bad data, not bad reporting, is what led to media failures in 2016

Photo (cc) 2005 by stu_spivack

This drives me crazy. In a New York Times review of Katy Tur’s new memoir, “Rough Draft,” Joanna Coles writes about Tur’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign:

Tur, then in her early 30s, spent 510 exhausting days on the road for NBC News pursuing Trump and quickly realized — contrary to the opinion of her newsroom and the assumptions of the mainstream media — that he absolutely could win.

I’m sorry, but the idea that the media failed because they were hermetically sealed in their blue bicoastal bubbles — and that intrepid reporters like Tur were more in touch with what was happening — is perniciously wrong. It’s a myth that’s led to hundreds if not thousands of stories about Donald Trump voters in diners (do yourself a favor and read this), grounded in the false belief that if only journalists had been listening to working-class white voters in swing states they wouldn’t have been quite so secure in their belief that Hillary Clinton was going to win.

In fact, those predictions that Clinton would easily beat Trump were based not on smug assumptions or a lack of reporting. They were based on data. Poll after poll, conducted by smart, experienced pollsters, showed that Trump had no chance. The polls were off, but not by as much as we think. After all, Clinton did win the popular vote by nearly 3 million. In percentage terms, Trump (46.1%) didn’t even do as well as Mitt Romney (47.2%) four years earlier. It’s just that Clinton piled up her margin in the wrong states, allowing Trump to eke out a tiny Electoral College victory. It’s a problem that’s only going to get worse unless we make some long-overdue changes to the Constitution, as I wrote recently.

My point is not to relitigate the 2016 election. Rather, it’s to remind us of why the media got it wrong. This is a big country. For every enthusiastic Trump rally, there were others with scores of empty seats. For every flat Clinton appearance, there were those where she and the crowd were energized. Anecdotal evidence, no matter how much of it you accumulate, is of limited value. The media didn’t blow it because they weren’t listening to Trumpers. They blew it because they believed the data. Ask yourself this: If those Nate Silver-style projections showed Trump, rather than Clinton, with a 70% chance of victory, do you think the press would have ignored that? Of course not.

Then again, why is media failure defined by getting predictions wrong? Democracy would have been better served if the press had spent more time simply covering the campaign and less time trying to figure out who was going to win.

By the way, Tur sounds like a pretty amazing person as well as a fine reporter.