Speculation Disguised as News

by Jason Richwine

Here is the graphic on the front page of the New York Times’ website this morning:

What a remarkably precise estimate of where Neil Gorsuch fits in! This is one of the media’s worst habits — reporting gross speculation as if it were news. No one knows if Gorsuch will be more or less conservative than, say, Sam Alito, yet this kind of reporting will shape the narrative anyway.

The Times is using a study that predicts nominees’ voting records with a simple model — a very simple model. If I am reading them right, the authors of the study took the ideology of former Colorado senator Wayne Allard and assigned it wholesale to Gorsuch. The reason is that Allard was the only Republican senator from Gorsuch’s home state at the time of his nomination to the federal bench. That is the whole basis of the prediction. It apparently justifies a front-page graphic declaring exactly where Gorsuch — i.e., Wayne Allard incognito — would fit into the current Court.

I’m not knocking the study so much as the Times’ use of it. The prediction model offers some academic value, but what it does not offer is anything interesting about Neil Gorsuch. We know that Gorsuch will be a conservative justice based on his writings and personal background. What we do not know is where his voting record will be relative to the other conservatives on the Court. The Times would like us to believe, based on the Wayne Allard model, that Gorsuch will fall between Scalia (formerly) and Thomas. But the model itself fails on precise positioning. It predicted that Alito and Thomas would be equally conservative, for example, and that Scalia would be to the right of both of them. Those predictions are incorrect by the study’s own metrics.

In short, the Times’ assertion about Gorsuch’s ideology is just speculation disguised as news. That may seem harmless, but it’s what many false narratives are built upon.

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