Nailed It! Reason Mag Rips Up NYT Hit Piece on NYC Nail Salons; Workers Protest NYT HQ

October 28th, 2015 10:52 AM

The New York Times proudly unveiled on the front of its Sunday May 10 issue the first of a two-part "expose" of nail salons in Manhattan by Sarah Maslin Nir, "The Price of Nice Nails." The first part focused on alleged "rampant exploitation" of workers, while Part 2 was based on anecdotal pseudo-science about the alleged health risks to workers of nail salons. It is causing major damage to a local industry composed mostly of lower class Asian workers, many of them immigrants. But does the expose hold up?

Nir, former nightlife reporter for the Times, earned some notoriety for a November 2012 piece faulting wealthy "white gentrifiers" who donated time and money and effort to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Nir found "dividing lines in a city long fractured by class, race, ethnicity, geography and culture" and managed to chide "white gentrifiers" for only caring about the poor when tragedy strikes.

In her expose of nail salons, the privileged white reporter certainly did her own part for "gentrification," helping heap onerous regulatory burdens on nail salons and hurting the mostly Asian workforce with a set of misleading articles. And the workers are responding.

On Tuesday morning, for the second time this month, hundreds of Asian workers protested in front of the New York Times Co. headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, showing signs like "New York Times Please Don't Lie" and accusing Nir of being an "Ignorant Careerist."

A handout at the protest noted that the workers Nir cited as being cheated out of wages were interns paid low salaries, "But law firms, publishing companies, art galleries, and newspapers have interns paid nothing at all, and they are not accused of 'wage theft.'"

Those newspapers include the hypocritical New York Times itself, as my colleague Tim Graham pointed out in 2013.

Jim Epstein was scathing in a thorough debunking at Reason, the first of three promised parts: "The New York Times’ Nail Salons Series Was Filled with Misquotes and Factual Errors. Here’s Why That Matters." The subhead: "Reporter Sarah Maslin Nir's investigative series violated the standards of responsible journalism." Epstein's takedown is long and deeply researched, but here are some excerpts from the first tranche (bolds added by Newsbusters):

....I've spent the last several weeks re-reporting aspects of Nir's story and interviewing her sources. Not only did Nir's coverage broadly mischaracterize the nail salon industry, several of the men and women she spoke with say she misquoted or misrepresented them. In some cases, she interviewed sources without translators despite their poor English skills. When her sources' testimonies ran counter to her narrative, she omitted them altogether.....If it hadn't had real-world consequences, the series -- and subsequent attempt by Nir and her editors to parry criticism -- wouldn't be worth such intense scrutiny. But the day after the first article appeared in the print edition of the Times, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) announced a new multi-agency task force to inspect nail salons. In August, Cuomo issued an emergency order mandating that salons purchase a new form of insurance called a "wage bond" so that if owners are discovered paying their employees less than the legally required wage, the workers have recourse to collect.


In an early paragraph in the Times' first story in the nail salon series, we read:

"Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo. Ads in Chinese in both Sing Tao Daily and World Journal for NYC Nail Spa, a second-story salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, advertised a starting wage of $10 a day. The rate was confirmed by several workers."

Richard Bernstein, who rightly called this paragraph a "linchpin" of Nir's first article, was incredulous that anyone would advertise a day wage of $10 given that his wife must guarantee wages of about ten times that to attract qualified applicants. So he went looking through the classifieds in back issues of the Chinese-language newspaper, The World Journal, and couldn't find a single ad that mentioned wages under $70 per day. He found one ad offering to pay between $110 and $130 per day.

Other than the $10 ad that Nir references -- which I'll return to in a moment [editor's note: later in the story, Epstein debunks that ad as well] -- Nir doesn't cite any other specific ads paying wages so low they "appear to be a typo." But after Bernstein highlighted this passage in The New York Review of Books, Times editors Dean Baquet, Wendell Jamieson, and Michael Luo co-signed a letter defending Nir's reporting.

Their letter cites three more ads to support Nir's claim:

One [ad] from June 19, 2014, in the World Journal, for example, showed a starting wage of $40 a day for "small job"…Another ad from July 17, 2014 in The World Journal also showed a $40 a day wage. And another one from April 17, 2014 showed a pay range of $40 to $90 a day. These examples were taken from a random sampling of days.

The Times editors also posted high-resolution copies of the three ads to the photo-sharing site Flickr, but, somewhat suspiciously, the Chinese characters are out of focus and my translator couldn't decipher them. So I went to The World Journal's headquarters in Queens and obtained new copies of the ads, which I've posted here.

The ads don't say what the Times editors claim they do. Two of the ads they cite actually say that a mani/pedi costs $40 at the salon, not that a worker would be paid $40. Why include such a detail in a job ad? It implies big tips.

Much more at the article at Reason.