The New York Times goes to war: Why the NY Review of Books is challenging its searing exposé on nail-salon abuse

The Times' searing portrait of NYC nail-salon abuse has come under fire

Published July 28, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Dmitry Brizhatyuk</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Dmitry Brizhatyuk via Shutterstock)

It's a good bet that the New York Times was overjoyed at the reaction to its recent series on abuses at New York City's thousands of nail salons. Sarah Maslin Nir's exposé painted a toxic portrait of an industry rife with criminally low pay, racism and unsafe working conditions. It went off like a bomb when it was published, eliciting horrified responses from people who'd gotten their nails done without a second thought. New regulations at both the city and state level soon followed. A Pulitzer does not seem out of the question.

To everything, though, there is a backlash. The backlash to Nir's piece arrived last Saturday in the form of a rebuttal on the New York Review of Books website. Author Richard Bernstein, a former Times reporter no less, charged that Nir's story was a false picture of the salon industry—one shot through with so many holes as to be virtually worthless.

It's possible that the Times regrets using some sweeping phrases like "almost any salon in the New York area" to describe working conditions in such a large industry, but Bernstein's piece is self-evidently shoddy. Faced with a huge, detailed investigation encompassing hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents, his response is essentially to say that he knows in his gut that the Times is wrong.

His most dramatic attempt to question Nir's reporting—in which he says that he looked at months' worth of Chinese newspapers and couldn't find any evidence that they post ads for low-wage salon jobs, as the Times report claimed—was almost immediately undercut when Nir tweeted a picture of one of those ads. Michael Luo, who edited the series, posted several more convincing rebuttals to most of Bernstein's claims.

I'm not going to replay the entire back-and-forth here. But what is most troubling about Bernstein's piece is why he is so sure that the Times is so mistaken: It turns out that he is himself a member of the very industry that the paper was investigating.

This isn't some secret I dug up. Bernstein tells us himself, writing near the top of his piece that, "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."

So here we have a man who, however nicely he may treat his own workers, has a direct financial interest in swatting away any threats to the reputation of his industry. Of course Bernstein has every right to speak up for his occupation, but he shouldn't be able to get away with using his journalism background to make us think this isn't the highbrow equivalent of a CEO's P.R.-written op-ed after a company scandal.

The most revealing moments in Bernstein's attempted takedown come when he shows just how much his time in the salon industry has warped his thinking. Take the passage where he is responding to the story of Jing Ren, one of the main characters in Nir's piece. According to Nir, Ren received no salary when she started at one salon, subsisting solely on tips for three months before finally being given roughly $3 an hour—a patently illegal scenario. Eventually, after working around the clock for six to seven days a week, Ren found a different job that paid $65 a day.

Bernstein sees this seemingly appalling situation in a much better light:

In the final lines of the Times exposé, we learn that this embodiment of the exploited salon worker has, a few months after her first day at her first salon, gotten a new job at another salon paying $65 a day, which with tips and commissions means that she too is almost surely earning upwards of $100 a day.

In other words, Ms. Ren seems to have made a kind of calculated decision. She’s worked for very low wages in exchange for the experience and training she needed to get a better job, and now she has one, perhaps by answering one of the thousands of classified ads ignored by the Times account.

Nothing to worry about, then!

Never mind that, far from "a few months," Ren worked at this salon for nearly a year. There's no suggestion in Bernstein's telling that "[working] for very low wages in exchange for the experience and training" is at all problematic. That should tell you everything you need to know about his perspective.

Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson has said that the New York Post rejected Bernstein's piece before he took it to the NYRB. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking I'd never see the day when the New York Review Of Books was picking up the New York Post's leftovers. Why such a publication decided to waste its credibility on something like this is utterly mystifying.

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Media Criticism Nail Salons The Labor Movement The New York Review Of Books The New York Times