July 31, 2015

New York Review of Books

Richard Bernstein continued his beef with the New York Times’ nail salon exposé and says the editor’s response was late and insufficient.

Bernstein’s article, published on the New York Review of Books website on Friday, came in response to the letter issued by New York Times editors earlier this week. And so, the debate rages on over ‘Unvarnished’ by Times Reporter Sarah Maslin Nir.

The Times’ rebuttal called his critique as “industry advocacy” while Bernstein responded by focusing on the paper’s lack of response to its allegation that classified advertisements don’t offer $10 a day for workers, as was reported by the story. Bernstein is a part owner of two New York City day spas that are operated by his wife and sister-in-law, both Chinese natives, in an industry with many Asian immigrants.

Nir responded to Bernstein’s concern earlier this week, in a tweet showing a grab of the advertisement.

However, according to Bernstein’s response, the Times responded to his query about the advertisements three months after he tried to reach them. He adds that the advertisements listed were more than 12 months older than the date Nir’s story was published and included a listing for a day wage figure of $75 a day – something the Times article omitted.

The Times didn’t reproduce the ad in its long article, or even say when it appeared, or quote from what it actually said. It was in part to clarify that point that I emailed several Times editors, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact Ms. Nir by phone and in a letter I wrote to her at the Times, which was returned undelivered. My last such attempt was on June 16, when I emailed Wendell Jamieson, the Metro editor. “I wanted to ask if you can tell me what newspapers you reviewed and what dates? And can you cite a specific salary that you or one of your reporters has actually seen that corresponds to the description printed in the paper?” I got no response.

Now, finally, nearly three months after I made my first inquiries, the Times editors have supplied the information I was seeking. The ad appeared three times in April 2014, more than twelve months before the Times story ran. And it turns out to be quite different from the way it was described by the paper. The ad indeed offered $10 a day salaries to what it called xue-tu in Chinese, apprentices or trainees. But now for the first time we learn that that was a secondary element in the ad. The primary element, signaled in the ad’s headline, was an offer of jobs for manicurists paying $75 a day—the figure “$75” printed in large type—an important fact that was somehow omitted in the original exposé.

Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, had also published a response on Wednesday saying that “[Bernstein] makes some points worth considering, but they are minor ones that do not mar the overall quality of the project.” She added that she was “glad to see Times editors rebut the complaints so strongly.”

Bernstein, a former New York Times reporter, has said from the outset that he agrees that the central character of Nir’s story might have been exploited in the industry. However, bracketing the entire industry to exploitation isn’t justified.

But the Times claims that such exploitation can “readily be found” by walking into “the prim confines of just about any salon.” To defend this finding, the editors, like the exposé, do not mention that there are tens of thousands of regular salon workers who do not fall into this category.

Still, there is a happy outcome to the Times investigation and the debate surrounding it. Attention is being given to young women who are being underpaid and who have no resources to defend themselves against mistreatment, and this, as I might have made clearer in my critique, we can all agree is a good thing.

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I report, write and produce interactives for Poynter.org as the institute's 2015 Google Journalism Fellow. Tweet me @gurmanbhatia or email at gbhatia@poynter.org.
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