The New York Times has issued a rebuttal to former Times journalist and current spa owner Richard Bernstein, who wrote in the New York Review of Books that nail salons can’t possibly be as bad as the NYT suggested in their series “Unvarnished.” The Times says they are standing by the series and that Bernstein is responding to it as “a partisan defender” of the industry, not as a reporter.

Bernstein’s critique in the New York Review of Books suggested that, according to his personal experience as one guy, the nail industry is better-paying and better-regulated than the Times’ 13-month investigation found. The Times’ rebuttal, written by Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Metro Editor Wendell Jamieson, and Deputy Metro Editor Michael Luo, says reporter Sarah Maslin Nir’s reporting backs up her conclusion that the industry is “Dickensian:”

Mr. Bernstein criticizes The Times for saying the “vast majority” of workers are underpaid, but our reporting supports that conclusion. He faults what he calls our “Dickensian” portrayal of the industry. We think the term is apt.

“Unvarnished” made clear that not all salon owners mistreat their workers. But the reporting showed that a great many do.

A considerable portion of Mr. Bernstein’s rebuttal is dedicated to a paragraph in Ms. Nir’s story about ads in the Chinese press that advertise jobs at strikingly low wages. Mr. Bernstein doesn’t say the ads don’t exist, just that he and his wife, both Chinese speakers, were unable to find them. He said they reviewed Chinese-language newspapers in the wake of “Unvarnished,” found no such ads, and then looked at a three-month period prior to the series’ publication.

He even seems to suggest that Ms. Nir might have made up an ad mentioned in the article that showed a starting wage of $10 a day at an Upper West Side salon, saying “it’s not clear whether the reporter saw the ad at all.”

Ms. Nir and her team came across the ad several times going through Chinese newspapers last spring. One of them ran on April 2, 2014, in the World Journal; another on April 17, 2014; and another on April 18, 2014. We are happy to provide a copy of that ad and others. It said that for people with licenses, the pay is $75, but for apprentices, it is $10.

Lest there be confusion about apprentices­–these are not the equivalent of unpaid summer interns at a magazine. Interviews by Ms. Nir and her team with employees of the salon confirmed that these were essentially beginning workers, doing the same jobs as others in the salon—people who should be paid the minimum wage. In fact, The Times’ investigation found that it is common in the industry for manicurists just starting out in the business to be paid nothing at all for several weeks or months and even have to pay a fee to start. This was what happened to the main subject in the first article in the series, Jing Ren.

The response also faults the New York Review of Books; the editors write that they’re “disappointed” that the publication “chose to publish what is essentially an example of industry advocacy, not unbiased journalism.”

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It’s actually incredible, when you think about it, that a lengthy investigation involving over 100 interviews could be called into question by one guy. Sarah Maslin Nir issued her own statement on that yesterday on Twitter:


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.

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