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 two–part 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…
Salon workers describe a culture of subservience that extends far beyond the pampering of customers. Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish. At her Harlem salon, Ms. Cacho said she and her colleagues had to buy new clothes in whatever color the manager decided was fashionable that week. Cameras are regularly hidden in salons, piping live feeds directly to owners’ smartphones and tablets.
Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.
“I am worth less than a shoe,” she said.
–Sarah Maslin Nir, in The New York Times, on the low wages and abuse suffered by manicurists.
Four years of covering Cuomo as a reporter have put me at his side day after day, week after week, from the Soviet Union to Canada, from San Francisco to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We’ve drunk vodka together at backyard cookouts and in a Leningrad hotel. (Often after a few vodkas, and in other times of reflection, he dwells not on moments of glory but on those of defeat, especially the bitter 1977 New York City mayoral race he lost to Edward I. Koch.) He has fallen asleep next to me on the red-eye flight out of Los Angeles. (He snores.) He has threatened to ruin me for articles he perceived as negative. (”I could end your career. Your publisher doesn’t even know who you are.”) He has offered to have the state police bring me chicken soup when I was home with the flu.
The four years are a roller-coaster ride of images:
Cuomo pacing in his office: ”Lincoln. Lincoln had bad press, too. He wasn’t appreciated until after he was gone.”
Cuomo backstage in seclusion after one of his major speeches, bent over, breathless and spent, like an athlete who has just finished a race.
Cuomo, the lawyer and student of the Vincentians, playing his favorite role, part Socrates and part Clarence S. Darrow, grilling a 10-year-old boy in the halls of the State Capitol: ”And how do you know you’re 10 years old? Your daddy says so? How do you know your daddy’s right?”
Cuomo, at the age of 55, still wearing on his right hand his St. John’s University ring, so deep is his gratitude to the college that transformed a son of poor Italian immigrants into a member of the professional class.
Cuomo, the Roman Catholic and the quick wit, remaining calm as some around him panicked when one of the two engines on his state plane failed: ”What’s the matter? Aren’t you in a state of grace?”
Cuomo making his own coffee in the kitchen of the Executive Mansion on a Saturday morning, then walking through the residence pointing out the nicks in the woodwork left by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wheelchair.
—Jeffrey Schmalz, writing in the New York Times Magazine, May 15 1988.
Jill Abramson left the New York Times’s executive editor position today and was replaced by Dean Baquet, the managing editor at the newspaper. At The New Yorker, Ken Auletta writes about what happened behind the scenes:
As with any such upheaval, there’s a history behind it. Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect. Sulzberger is known to believe that the Times, as a financially beleaguered newspaper, needed to retreat on some of its generous pay and pension benefits; Abramson had also been at the Times for far fewer years than Keller, having spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, accounting for some of the pension disparity. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that Jill Abramson’s total compensation as executive editor “was directly comparable to Bill Keller’s”—though it was not actually the same. I was also told by another friend of Abramson’s that the pay gap with Keller was only closed after she complained. But, to women at an institution that was once sued by its female employees for discriminatory practices, the question brings up ugly memories. Whether Abramson was right or wrong, both sides were left unhappy. A third associate told me, “She found out that a former deputy managing editor”—a man—“made more money than she did” while she was managing editor. “She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.”
In trying to prove that the ISI knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts and protected him, I struggled for more than two years to piece together something other than circumstantial evidence and suppositions from sources with no direct knowledge. Only one man, a former ISI chief and retired general, Ziauddin Butt, told me that he thought Musharraf had arranged to hide Bin Laden in Abbottabad. But he had no proof and, under pressure, claimed in the Pakistani press that he’d been misunderstood. Finally, on a winter evening in 2012, I got the confirmation I was looking for. According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle Bin Laden. It was operated independently, led by an officer who made his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He handled only one person: Bin Laden. I was sitting at an outdoor cafe when I learned this, and I remember gasping, though quietly so as not to draw attention. (Two former senior American officials later told me that the information was consistent with their own conclusions.) This was what Afghans knew, and Taliban fighters had told me, but finally someone on the inside was admitting it. The desk was wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI — such is how supersecret intelligence units operate — but the top military bosses knew about it, I was told.
Longreads Best of 2013: Here Is What Happens After You Write a New York Times Story About Lindsay Lohan
Stephen Rodrick | New York Times Magazine | January 2013 | 31 minutes (7,752 words)