Vox.com has no idea how to cover culture

Ezra Klein's wonkiness comes in handy for analyzing GM's recall scandal. Dissecting "Game of Thrones"? Not so much

Published April 8, 2014 2:00PM (EDT)

Ezra Klein               (MSNBC)
Ezra Klein (MSNBC)

When Ezra Klein's Vox.com launched earlier this week, the early consensus seemed to be that it was beautiful. It featured elegant explainers on Obamacare and Ukraine and GM's recall scandal. It had neatly legible slideshows, called "cards," a term apparently borrowed from policy debate to describe the evidence used in making arguments. But upon closer inspection, there was one particularly frustrating feature of Vox: its cultural coverage.

Vox is designed to provide exhaustive information about topics in the news. It's helpful to understand GM's recall scandal using "cards" of categorized information, but for processing a TV show or movie or book, considerably less so.  What feels illuminating when applied to public policy can feel lamely reductive when applied to culture. Take the Vox post on "Game of Thrones," which reaches such heights of obviousness as "the show has an ensemble cast." Or the post "11 book series to satisfy your 'Game of Thrones' cravings," which at first glance could be any other Internet slideshow, just craftily repackaged to seem somehow more empirical than the rest of the Internet. On each "card," though, books are parsed, sliced and diced, as though literary tastes could be evaluated based on simple variables like number of characters ("Of all the books on this list, 'The Kingkiller Chronicles' focuses the most on a single character") or length ("Steven Erikson's epic high-fantasy series is composed of 10 books none of which have fewer than 700 pages.") Breaking a topic down to its components is a genuinely useful way to differentiate between healthcare proposals; not so much as a way to describe the merits of a book series.

The same problem arises in a piece about which board game is best—with a, well, wonkish focus on the leafiness of the figurative trees that completely elides the forest. Look at the first paragraph of this description of the game Agricola: "When it came out in 2007 (2008 for the English edition), the Spiel de Jahres awards — widely considered the most prestigious honors available for Euro game designers — awarded Agricola a special award for 'best complex game.' It was too intricate and multifaceted for SDJ’s standard award categories." Who would possibly want to play a game introduced to them with bloodless jargon about the concepts underpinning European board-game competitions? Well, maybe Ezra Klein. But for a lay audience, this falls pretty flat.

Though Klein's Vox and Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight have very different goals, they both share a desire to unpack pop culture using the brute force of logic and reason. And FiveThirtyEight has already demonstrated the pitfalls of data-driven cultural coverage. FiveThirtyEight's culture analysis is at best completely random. It presumes, for instance, that a numerical parsing of who says what to whom in Shakespeare will help us better understand what are the real most important couplings in the Bard's work — leaving entirely aside that much of Shakespeare's work, meant to sustain an interesting story onstage for hours, relies on keeping very important pairs (like Romeo and Juliet!) apart. And it educates its readers about why the Oscars are difficult to predict using statistical models, even though unforeseeable surprises are exactly what people like about the Oscars. (It also describes "Crash" as having won an Oscar in 2004, two years before that actually happened, in this insane sentence: "With the exception of, say, 'Crash' in 2004, the Academy tends to favor films that take risks, pave new ground and move cinema forward.") In this case, it seemed that FiveThirtyEight was substituting a skim of IMDb keywords — due to its film-festival run, "Crash" is listed there as a 2004 release — for an interest in figuring out what sort of films actually win Academy Awards, and why.

Granted, both sites are fledgling; Vox explicitly identifies itself as a "work in progress," and its coverage so far skews heavily toward politics. But so far both Silver and Klein have proved that extending a brand rooted in clearheaded fact-finding to the analysis of culture is a lot harder than it looks. Being conversant in the Ukraine crisis is different from being conversant in "Game of Thrones" — it's nearly impossible to fully understand the latter unless you've actually seen (or read) it. And we already have plenty of Wikipedia pages dedicated to summarizing each season of "Game of Thrones." For both Silver and Klein, methodology serves the purpose that art does for many — it's something transcendent, an end in and of itself.  The problem here isn't that Silver and Klein can't apply their methodologies to culture in a way that illuminates the systems that govern it. It's that, thus far, they both seem set on churning out content pegged to "culture" without really thinking through why explanatory or data-driven cultural coverage is necessary at all.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Ezra Klein Fivethirtyeight Media Media Criticism Nate Silver Vox.com