Few recent investigative articles have landed with the sledgehammer force of the New York Times’ two-part exposé in May about working conditions at nail salons across the state. Within hours of the first article’s publication, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered an investigation of the industry and later signed a law providing greater protections for workers.
But the stories’ conclusions — including “rampant” wage theft and exploitation of the mostly immigrant workforce — have been called into question by an unusually placed critic: a former New York Times journalist who co-owns two salons in Manhattan.
Writing in the New York Review of Books over the weekend, Richard Bernstein blasted Sarah Maslin Nir’s portrait of repulsive conditions in the salon business, a series that some journalists have suggested could be an early contender for a Pulitzer Prize.
“This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced [as salon owners] over the past 12 years,” Bernstein wrote. “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.”
Bernstein didn’t take issue with the contention that some workers are abused; he instead questioned the Times’ conclusion that there is “rampant exploitation” of “a vast majority” of the tens of thousands of manicurists and other salon workers, and that abuse can be found in “almost any salon” in the state.
Times’ editors began a vigorous defense of the series. In an email exchange Sunday, executive editor Dean Baquet said, “This was a great piece of journalism and Richard is speaking for the industry. I don’t think he should be treated as a journalist taking down a story on this one.”
Times Metro editor Wendell Jamieson emailed: “The story is rock rock rock solid.”
Bernstein took issue with the article’s claim that Chinese-language papers are “rife” with ads that offer positions for as little as $10 a day. He reviewed every ad for manicurists in one Chinese-language newspaper, the World Journal, for three months prior to the story’s publication. “We found not a single one fitting the description of the ads that the Times asserts the papers to be full of.”
Instead, ads offered between $70 to $120 a day, plus tips and commissions and free busing from Chinatown.