Backlash: Richard Bernstein on the New York Times’ Nail Salons Exposé

At The New York Review of Books, former New York Times reporter—and current salon co-owner—Richard Bernstein takes the paper to task for its much-talked-about twopart 7000-word exposé on the exploitation and abuse of employees at nail salons in New York City.

He says the article—which led to a state-wide investigation and a new law instituted by Governor Andrew Cuomo—misrepresents the salon industry as a whole by focusing mainly on one undocumented and unlicensed worker. He also suggests it wasn’t as thoroughly reported as author Sarah Maslin Nir claims—although apparently he didn’t reach out to her for comment.

As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based….

… How to account for these evident flaws, the one-sidedness of the Times story? Recently the Times’s own Nick Kristof wrote in a column that “one of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it,” and, he might have added, consciously or not, ignore anecdotes and other information that doesn’t. The narrative chosen by the Times, what might be called the narrative of wholesale injustice, is one of the most powerful and tempting in journalism. Certainly, as Mr. Baquet put it, it had “impact.” It was read, he told an audience in mid-June, by 5 million people, which is five times the readership of the Sunday print edition, and produced an immediate government response.

Surely, Bernstein’s exposé-on-the-exposé isn’t the last word. Nir and others at the Times have taken to Twitter, and Times deputy Metro editor Michael Luo has Storified that activity and other developing aspects of the story. In a tweet, Nir suggests that Times executive editor Dean Baquet has a response in the works.

Stay tuned to find out whether it might in fact be okay to get inexpensive manicures after all…

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