Live from the Journamalists' Lair: All I can say is: shame on the editors of Vanity Fair--on many levels and for many reasons:

Michael Kinsley: Donald Trump and the Limits of Data Journalism:

Internet news sites and their denizens love “data”...

The literal meaning of the word “data,” in its modern sense, is simply “information.” What the young journalists of the Web mean by it is something closer to statistics... offering] (they claim) more information, more accurately, than, say, an interview, which is nothing more than a survey with a sample of one.... The rock star of this new kind of journalism is Ezra Klein... who has the gall to have been born in 1984.... If called upon to report on a rumor that the earth may be flat after all, a traditional newspaper would send a reporter out to interview a few scientists in order to quote their takes on the subject. The result would inevitably depend on whom the reporter talks to. On subjects other than Donald Trump, there will be a premium on “balance” and “objectivity”: making sure that the flat-earthers have their fair share of the quotes. By contrast, an Ezra, as we will call it (because that’s my middle name), will look for data. If the data point to the conclusion that the earth really is round, then that is what an Ezra will report. You won’t find any coffee grounds swirling at the bottom of the cup.

Donald Trump and the Limits of Data Journalism Vanity Fair

STOP THE PRESSES! It can take a lot of charts, graphs, and diagrams to make a very small point.

An Ezra also will shuffle the deck and summarize ruthlessly.... This process of summarizing and shuffling is called “aggregation.”... The fancier term is “curation”... applying your superior intelligence to the mountain of data out there and putting together a summary that no reader could be expected to assemble on his or her own.... Some folks have yet another word for aggregation and related activities on the Web. They call it “plagiarism.” If aggregation is nothing more than stealing other people’s work, the perpetrators will have to pay in heaven because they will never be made to pay in the here and now....

The Ezras have found a true weakness to exploit in much of today’s journalism: the typical reporter is scared of math. He or she majored in English literature or creative writing. One day the publisher announces that he or she has hired an engineer or software programmer. Life is never the same. (Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated neither.)... Vox and the Upshot have plenty of interesting and useful material. They also have some problems. First, they can be somewhat pompous. You would think that they invented the Venn diagram. The Times says of the Upshot that it “provides news, analysis and graphics about politics, policy and everyday life.” If this one new column provides all of that, what is the rest of the Times supposed to provide? As for Vox: “Making complex topics easier to understand, Vox candidly shepherds audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science and everything else that matters.” This doesn’t narrow things down much, either.

All is not data. A Vox (or Upshot) analysis sometimes ends up looking a lot like an opinion column of the grandee period, which ran from Walter Lippmann in the 1920s through George Will, who may still be at it.... The author is personally “worried” about developments his typical reader may not even be aware of prior to reading the column. As a reader, doesn’t that make you feel small? Why aren’t you worried, too?

And sometimes data take you only so far, which may not be very far at all. If you want to see an example of a pure, unadulterated Ezra, I recommend... Nate Cohn (not to be confused with another Ezra, also called Nate, Nate Silver, who left the Times for ESPN). The headline was a bit opaque: FINDING A WHITER ELECTORATE THAT OPENS A PATH FOR TRUMP. This ran on page one of the paper with bytes and bytes of data on the Times Web site to back it up. Its purpose was to prove that, although Donald Trump “is considered to be a long shot to win the presidency,” in actual fact there is a “narrow path” by which he could win. Is this really news? The difference between “a long shot” (which Trump apparently has) and a “narrow path” (which he might have if a series of things happen which are not completely impossible) is not all that great. It’s like the difference between light blue and pale blue—but proving this small point requires mounds of data. This is all introduced with a flourish and considerable preening: “New analysis by the Upshot” reveals that reliance on exit polls may mislead even The New York Times (in fact, may mislead even the Upshot).... You can call this “new analysis,” or you can call it a mistake. We all make mistakes. It takes data to turn one into an Ezra.

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