WASHINGTON — Back by unpopular demand is the New York Times’ election-night needle. The paper announced Monday it would be rolling out not one but four different needles to project and predict the results of the Iowa caucus.
You probably remember the Times’ needle from the 2016 election. The Times is reviving the needle for Iowa, its reporters explain, because it “gives many readers the piece of information they want more than anything else on election night: It tells them who is on track to win the election.”
No, the piece of information readers want more than anything on election night is who won the election. And the moment the outcome is announced, the Times’ needles will be rendered obsolete. The return of the needle is another sign that, as we kick off a presidential primary with massive stakes for the country, political journalism still hasn’t learned the lessons of 2016.
Four years ago, the political class — which includes many journalists — was humbled by the election of Donald Trump. You’d think that a moment like that one would have prompted a period of self-reflection, a genuine attempt to understand how we missed the story and how to improve upon the ways we cover the next election.
There was no such reckoning after Trump’s election. No 9/11 Commission for political journalism. No industry-wide listening tour to hear from readers and voters. (Props to HuffPost for doing something like this.) “It’s like a law of nature that you just move on to the next story,” Jay Rosen, an NYU professor and widely read media critic, recently told me. In this case, the next story was one whose importance couldn’t be understated: the presidency of Donald Trump. But because of that, Rosen adds, “you don’t have any real inquiry into what went wrong.”
One question political reporters and editors could have weighed in a post-2016 reckoning was whether the growing fixation with prediction and projection serves readers and citizens. It’s human nature to seek out information that helps make sense of the unknowable. The 2016 election saw the rise of daily polling averages and projection journalism, led largely by the Times and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. Whether intended to or not, those averages became safety blankets for anxious readers to cling to in the run-up to the election. Trump can’t win, this thinking went, because the polling averages and projections still show Hillary Clinton on the way to victory. “They call it 538 because that’s the number of times you check it each hour,” the writer Susan Orlean tweeted on the eve of the 2016 election.
None of this is to say the projections or the needle were wrong, even if the underlying polls were. As election night 2016 wore on, the Times needle, as promised, swung slowly, then rapidly, toward Trump’s name as he marched to victory.
The question is: What service does the needle provide? The Times tries to anticipate critics of its decision to use the election needle for the Iowa caucus by writing: “For those who wonder whether the world really needs the election needle, we realize the actual results will emerge soon enough. But we also think that the millions of people who follow election night results online ought to have the context to understand them as well as experts do.”
What does the public gain by having the same minute-by-minute, precinct-by-precinct rolling election intel as the political pros? Are readers more informed in a way that enhances their understanding of the campaign from having followed the Times needle all evening as opposed to doing literally anything else and waiting until the final result is in? Isn’t there more important journalism to be done using the resources poured into projection journalism?
Jay Rosen, the NYU professor, says journalism’s shift toward what he calls game-day coverage and insider-style metrics stems from a fundamental flaw in political journalism: the failure to clearly articulate a mission or purpose.
“Nobody has any idea what it means to succeed at campaign coverage,” he says. “If you can predict a winner, is that success? Even if journalists could do that — which 2016 showed they couldn’t — even if they could, what now? Here’s who’s going to win: We’re telling you before the vote! Is that really a public service, telling the voters who’s going to win?”
The Times needle will surely draw millions of anxious readers as the Times’ liberal audience looks for the smallest shred of certainty and assurance in 2020’s first contest. But is that really a public service? Is this what political journalism is supposed to do?