Journalist tries to take the polish off an NYT series

Janet Nguyen Jul 27, 2015

Journalist tries to take the polish off an NYT series

Janet Nguyen Jul 27, 2015

A New York Times series that unveiled harsh working conditions in New York City nail salons is eliciting criticism from a former Times writer about the report’s methodology.

Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir spoke to more than 150 nail salon workers and owners for a two-part investigation called “Unvarnished,” and described the grim conditions to Marketplace back in May when the stories were published. Richard Bernstein, in an article for the New York Review of Books, says that Nir drew a “Dickensian portrait” of the industry, one that doesn’t jibe with his experience as part owner of two Manhattan day spas.

In the critique, Bernstein asks, “Is it true?” You’ve figured out his answer to that. Here is a summary of some of Bernstein’s criticisms:

  • According to Bernstein, the New York Times failed to provide sufficient proof about an ad from Chinese-language papers Sing Tao Daily and World Journal that advertised jobs at a rate of $10 a day.
  • In an independent investigation by Bernstein and his wife, the two combed through World Journal issues dating back to March and failed to find the ad the series described. The lowest salary Bernstein says they saw in an ad was $70 a day — prior to the series’ publication. Others salaries ranged from $110 to $130.
  • Bernstein draws from personal anecdotes to refute the low-salary claims found in The Times, saying that they would be unable to find employees willing to work for the wages cited in Nir’s series.  
  • Nir was selective in her presentation of nail salon ads, failing to account for the numerous ads that he and his wife came across that listed higher prices than presented in the article, according to Bernstein. Bernstein also questions why potential nail salon workers would neglect the ads for higher-paying jobs in favor of ones that offer lower wages.
  • Though Nir mentions the infrequency of nail salon inspections by the government, Bernstein says he finds fault with this claim, citing the regular, annual inspections at his own salons. He adds that according to the New York Department of State, between May of last year and this year, there were more than 5,000 “appearance enhancement” business inspections, which included nail salons.   
  • Bernstein says he thinks Nir inaccurately characterizes the working conditions of nail salons by making manicurist Jing Ren, a 20-year-old from China whom she interviews for the story, representative of employees in the industry. He says that there are many nail salon workers who are not “undocumented, untrained, or unlicensed like [Ren].”
  • Though the New York Times provides a searing critique of the industry, Nir says Ren has found a nail salon job that pays a higher wage— a trajectory which Bernstein suggests undermines the article’s claim about the industry’s “rampant exploitation.”

The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has not released an official statement on the methods used in the series. However, Nir and several other New York Times reporters and editors have directly and indirectly addressed his claims on social media.

On Twitter, Nir denounced Bernstein’s criticism of the series, calling him “biased.”


New York Times Deputy Metro Editor Michael Luo — the editor of Nir’s series — has published a Storify post of his tweets responding to criticism against the nail salon series and says the Times has plans to publish a more formal response.

A tweet showing the ad for the $10-a-day nail salon salary mentioned in Nir’s first article in the series:

Some have echoed Bernstein’s concerns. Adam Ragusea, the host for’s “The Pub” podcast, criticized the New York Times’s presentation of the nail salon industry, using Bernstein’s argument that the $10-a-day ad may be unrepresentative of actual wages offered by nail salon owners.

Michael Powell — a New York Times “Sports of the Times” columnist — responded to Ragusea by suggesting that his criticism was rooted in “self-righteousness,” while Patrick LaForge, the New York Times’ editor for news presentation, said his criticism was “off base.”

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