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We Knew Nothing

Never has there been more information and less knowledge about a presidential campaign than there was in 2016

Getty Images
Getty Images

As Donald Trump was taking his bows in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Brian Williams was sitting in the MSNBC funeral parlor saying this: “We are not ignoring the other elephant in the room … and that is the total failure of all modes and methods of prediction. … No one had this right.”

He’s overdoing it a little. But Williams has a kernel of a point. In 2016, we news consumers knew more than we ever did about an American presidential election. We could cite SurveyMonkey polls, Trump’s latest insult via CBS’s Sopan Deb, and the length of the early-voting line at Nevada’s Cardenas Market. Yet in the wake of Trump’s shocking victory, it feels like we knew nothing at all.

For some perspective, think back 20 years. A dedicated political animal of the late ’90s had three cable news networks. A national newspaper or two, if he or she could afford to subscribe. Newsweeklies and opinion journals of both stripes. The Hotline, maybe.

The same animal now grazes from a far bigger and more nutrient-rich buffet. The New York Times and The Washington Post are cheap to read online. Local newspapers have scalable paywalls. Politico is free.

There are the Two Nates and an entire data-journalism-industrial complex. Every top political journalist and apparatchik is doing their bit on Twitter. Network TV gremlins like Deb, which previously informed producers and on-air talent, now inform us all. Cable chat may be slightly dumber in the aggregate, but the channels employ smart people (Steve Kornacki, Jake Tapper) who talk about politics with the kind of sophistication that would have been pretty much unthinkable on TV (even network) 20 years ago. If you don’t believe me, step into the YouTube time capsule.

In 2004, my job as a journalist (which is to say, my license to read the internet all day) allowed me to assure nervous pals that the exit polls looked really good for John Kerry. Don’t worry, we got this… In 2016, unless I’m wielding my reporter’s notebook, I have no inside knowledge that those same friends couldn’t harvest from the web themselves. We’re all Chuck Todd now.

Which is what made the calamity of Tuesday night so surreal. I was like every other overinformed Hillaryite. I said “firewall” a lot. “She didn’t need Florida or North Carolina, anyway,” I assured the imaginary friend on the couch. I could talk about turnout and GOTV in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. None of these factoids and koans were wrong, exactly. But the large picture was: Trump won.

What followed on Twitter — and figures to turn into Niagara Falls this week — is media self-recrimination. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait posted the piece he’d written about how Trump would never win Michigan — one Chait said he conceived less as an analyst than as a proud native son. Nate Silver was subtly knifing fellow journalists who’d said he’d overestimated Trump’s chances; one of his antagonists, Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post, was apologizing to Silver.

A radio host named Bill Mitchell, whose Trump-is-winning mantra had him on track to become the Amazing Criswell of politics, was taking a well-earned victory lap. And then there was Times correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum:

We media consumers knew everything. And we also knew nothing.

How do we process such a disconnect? Well, one thing to remember is that for a complicated, multisite event like a presidential campaign, a lot of journalists are still reliant on their sources. Early last night, broadcasters thought Clinton had won the election because Team Clinton thought it had won the election. ABC News’s Liz Kreutz reported on TV Wednesday morning that she didn’t talk to a single Clintonite, even off the record, who thought a loss was possible. Similarly, the RNC thought Trump had lost the election. As Politico’s Kenneth Vogel reported, the RNC was giving journalists its data over the weekend so that it could prove, after Trump’s inevitable loss, that it hadn’t stabbed him in the back.

Data journalism allows readers to imagine that they possess infallible truth. But as 2016 proved, data journalists are as fallible as anyone else. Many of them whiffed on Trump — twice. As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten put it, “We thought polls were wrong in the primary when they had Trump. We thought the polls were right when they didn’t have Trump in the general.”

A shoe-leather reporter could be tempted to do an end zone dance. But in fact, a lot of the data journalism was quite good. Silver’s Election Eve update held out the possibility, in the face of great pressure to say otherwise, that Trump could win a narrow victory.

As far back as The Boys on the Bus, an almost comic amount of honor has been given to political reporters who foresee the events of a national election. As Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal yukked, last night every reporter was sifting through his old tweets and stories, hoping like hell that he’d predicted some tiny element of the results. ICYMI from March …

I often like to compare sportswriting with political writing. Just as I don’t dock sportswriters for not guessing who’s going to win next year’s Super Bowl, I don’t blast political pros who couldn’t predict a smashing Trump victory. Did The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold know Trump was going to win? Did the Times’s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman? Did Katy Tur? Did Tapper? Did Molly Ball? Does this make them somehow deficient? I don’t think so. Ironically, it’s the excellence and easy availability of their work that allows us the illusion of thinking we know everything about politics. We don’t. Get used to it.