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The Times pushes peer review of hoops bias claim, but not of AY economics

The New York Times appears to practice "the journalism of verification" more when it comes to a scholarly analysis of bias in basketball than when confronted with a developer-paid analysis of Atlantic Yards benefits.

A front-page article in Wednesday's Times, headlined Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls took off from an upcoming paper by a University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University graduate student that argues that white referees discriminate in calling fouls against black players compared to white players.

(Curiously, not until the 12th paragraph did we learn that the analyzed differential in the rate of foul calls is 4.5%. Is there a margin of error?)

The National Basketball Association, which had seen an earlier version of the paper, commissioned its own study, which indicated no bias. Sounds like a vigorous dispute.

So what did the Times do? Quite responsibly, it sought some peer review:
Three independent experts asked by The Times to examine the Wolfers-Price paper and materials released by the N.B.A. said they considered the Wolfers-Price argument far more sound.

About that review

Yesterday, the newspaper published an Editor's Note acknowledging that, after the article was published, the Times learned that one of the three experts was the chairman of Wolfers’ doctoral thesis committee and should not have been cited.

Another of the experts had been "thanked for brief 'helpful comments'” about the paper" to Wolfers. Those comments, the Times noted, should have been mentioned in the article.

Still, give the Times points for intention but not execution.

Ignoring the AY economic analysis

By contrast, when the Times in 2004 covered the release of a study critiquing the projections of Andrew Zimbalist, Forest City Ratner's paid consultant on Atlantic Yards, the news was left as "he-said, he-said" and tacked onto another story about Downtown Brooklyn redevelopment.

In the 6/29/04 article, headlined A Plan Passes And an Arena Is Protested In Brooklyn, the Times laid out the charges but gave the last two paragraphs to the developer:
But the report by Dr. [Gustav] Peebles, an anthropologist who studies economic issues, argues that the Forest City Ratner report, written by Andrew Zimbalist, an economist who analyzes the sports industry, makes several faulty assumptions, including overstating the need for new office space, inflating the projected income levels of potential residents and workers and ignoring the effect of a long-term construction project on property values. The new report, written with Jung Kim, an urban planner with a master's degree from the London School of Economics, concludes that the project is not worth the public investment the developer is seeking.

...Barry Baum, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner (which is The New York Times Company's partner in developing its new headquarters on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan), said company officials had not yet fully reviewed the report and could not comment on the details. "However," he added, "Andrew Zimbalist is a respected economist who has not in the past generally supported this kind of project, but clearly sees a great benefit for the city and state from the Atlantic Yards arena and development."

Dr. Zimbalist, for his part, said he had not seen the report and knew only what he had heard from reporters. Saying he was unsure whether Dr. Peebles or Mr. Kim had fully understood the economic issues, he added, "I was very careful in my use of numbers."

Looking at documents

Given Zimbalist's national reputation as a strong critic of public subsidies for sports facilities, and the vastly different conclusions reached by Peebles/Kim, the dispute was of more than temporary local interest.

Then again, the author of that Times article, Diane Cardwell, has a self-described practice of not reading documents:
While her reporting has won the respect of editors and readers alike, Cardwell’s journalistic methods are unorthodox. “I don’t look at documents,” she said. Instead, she prefers talking to sources, listening to the tone of their voices and content of their explanations.

While that may explain why she chose to end her story with a quote from Zimbalist, that technique has its limitations. (Then again, last year Cardwell was named City Hall bureau chief.)

The dispute about the fiscal impact of Atlantic Yards deserved a more rigorous follow-up.

The $6 billion lie

Since then, Forest City Ratner has invoked Zimbalist's work numerous times, and several elected officials last year endorsed the developer's $6 billion lie, based on Zimbalist's flawed analysis.

Those officials (affiliations as of 2006) included Senator Chuck Schumer; Representative Ed Towns; State Senators Martin Malave Dilan, Carl Andrews, Carl Kruger, and Kevin Parker; State Assemblymen Roger Green, Joseph Lentol, and Darryl Towns; City Council Members Erik Martin Dilan, Bill de Blasio, Lewis Fidler, Michael Nelson, and James Sanders; and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

(Note that de Blasio now positions himself as an evenhanded watchdog of the Atlantic Yards demolition and construction process.)

No peer reviewers

The Times didn't consult any peer reviewers regarding Zimbalist's report. They were out there.

"I would never have undertaken this exercise,” Washington State University sports economist Rod Fort told Neil deMause of Field of Schemes. “In essence, Andy [Zimbalist] is trying to forecast 33 years hence, and he’s forecasting housing markets, which there are other people spending all their waking moments on. What you see is assumption after assumption after assumption after assumption.” (Fort was thanked for his comments in his review of the Kim/Peebles report.)

A March 2005 analysis of Atlantic Yards, Slam Dunk or Air Ball?, the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED), has never been cited in the Times. It offered fundamental criticisms of Zimbalist's analysis (and also that of Peebles/Kim) because they tried to estimate new revenue from new residents' income taxes. Typically only new jobs trigger new income tax revenue, not new housing.

I asked James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, who worked on the Pratt report, if there was any precedent for Zimbalist's methodology. He responded, "I don't know of any serious cost-benefit analyses of mixed-used economic development projects that count the taxes of residents. That's why we said it was a methodological flaw."

In other words, Zimbalist had claimed that, simply by building new housing, Forest City Ratner was boosting the city and state tax coffers. Following that logic, any luxury housing development would be, as the developer describes Atlantic Yards, an "economic development engine."

Government avoidance

Government analysts have steered clear of Zimbalist's methods. A September 2005 Independent Budget Office (IBO) Fiscal Brief declined to estimate revenues from the non-arena portion of the project, citing "methodological limitations."

Notably, in the Empire State Development Corporation's own flawed cost-benefit analyses, it has not tried to count income taxes from new residents.

In Chapter 4 of the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement(FEIS), the ESDC eschewed such methodology, stating:
For either variation, projected tax receipts do not include income tax paid by the residents at the proposed project or income tax from secondary employment generated by such residents.

Shouldn't that news be fit to print, while Forest City Ratner pushes forward with a slightly tweaked $5.6 billion lie?