Former Times reporter goes after paper's heralded nails exposé

[caption id="attachment_360687" align="alignleft" width="300"]Screenshot of The New York Review of Books article that questioned the veracity of the New York TImes nails story. Screenshot of The New York Review of Books article that questioned the veracity of The New York Times nails story.[/caption]It's essentially a mano a mano over nails.

Former New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein is questioning the accuracy and the essential thrust of his alma mater's engrossing recent exposé over the nail salon business in New York City.

He suggested, in The New York Review of Books, that The New York Times was exaggerating worker exploitation amid a "demonstrably misleading depiction" of the industry, prompting the paper to shoot back and say he's simply wrong.

The exposé involved low pay and other abusive treatment of mostly young, immigrant workers. It was even translated into Chinese by the paper and lured a big online audience worldwide by placing a spotlight on an enterprise that's quickly evolved into an urban mainstay.

Bernstein's analysis reflects substantial knowledge of the industry but also a vantage point that raises doubt about his own neutrality. He is part owner of two New York City day spas (operated by his wife and sister-in-law, both Chinese natives, in an industry with many Asian immigrants).

His piece in The New York Review of Books questions key facts detailed and allegations made by the newspaper. In particular, he asks whether there are ads run for workers that cite outrageously low pay, in some instances $10 a day.

Bernstein says that the mention of the ads in two Asian-language dailies -- citing a $10 rate that the newspaper said was, "was confirmed by several workers" -- constituted what Bernstein said "appeared to be a kind of clincher, a crystallization of the story's alarming message."

Suspicious, Bernstein writes that he and his wife tested the claim by reading "every ad placed by nail salons in the papers cited in the article, Sing Tao Daily and World Journal. Among the roughly 220 ads posted in each paper in the days after the Times story appeared, none mentioned salaries even remotely close to the ad the Times described."

Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet noted Sunday that Michael Luo, a Times editor who edited the exposé, took issue with Bernstein on Facebook and included a copy of an ad to make his point. Luo also went to Twitter to defend the story. Many of his posts were put into a Storify Sunday evening.

Baquet himself went out of his way to call Bernstein a "good guy" but believes his analysis is errant and that the paper's investigation of a booming New York business staple is demonstrably accurate.

Luo's Facebook posting said:

"Trying to respond factually and in a measured way to this New York Review of Books piece that posted tonight, challenging veracity of NYT's nail salon series, Unvarnished, by Sarah Maslin Nir. It's by Richard Bernstein, a former NYT reporter who owns two day spas. He builds his piece largely around suggestion that a classified ad she cited in a Chinese newspaper, advertising a starting wage of $10/day, was fiction. Here's the ad. There are others. He also cites inspections of his spa by Department of State to disprove another finding in the series, that inspections are rare and regulation is lax. But he misunderstands. Our story was pointing to Department of LABOR inspections--we FOILed the data. That's the agency that deals with wage theft. I also want to point out that other media have followed the series and come to similar conclusions."

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.


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