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Nail salon owner attempts to mansplain away N.Y. Times’ nail salon exposé

Sarah Maslin Nir's 'Unvarnished' series has spurred a war of words on Twitter.


Mary Emily O'Hara


Posted on Jul 27, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 6:56 am CDT

Sarah Maslin Nir‘s 13-month investigation into the labor conditions of New York City’s nail salons prompted many to rethink their next pedicure appointment and spurred immediate state-wide emergency measures. But her methodology and research is now being called into question by Richard Bernstein, a former reporter turned salon owner.

In an article for the New York Review of Books, Bernstein alleges that Nir distorted, and possibly invented, facts when she wrote the wildly popular nail salon exposé “Unvarnished,” which the New York Times published in May. 

The first article in Nir’s two-part series, “The Price of Nice Nails,” found deplorable financial exploitation in New York’s nail salons—some workers made as little as $10 a day while others reported having worked extensively without pay in apprenticeships. The second installment, “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” exposed the poor health conditions workers faced by coming into frequent, unprotected contact with chemical irritants.

Bernstein straddles a unique set of interests: He’s both a former New York Times writer and part-owner in a small chain of Manhattan day spas operated by his Chinese wife and sister-in-law. It’s clear that he has a direct financial interest in disproving Nir’s findings and clearing the salon industry of its newfound bad reputation. But Bernstein is also a journalist—a specialist in Chinese history and politics—who ostensibly carries the truth-seeking gene that drives curious, obsessive writers into newspaper jobs.

It’s strange, then, that a seasoned reporter would have so little understanding of how the editorial structure at a major newspaper works. Bernstein, simply not believing that Nir spent 13 months meticulously researching the story and apparently assuming that she did so in total isolation, reached out to the senior editorial staff at the Times. When the editors there—specifically Margaret Sullivan and Wendell Jamieson—told Bernstein that they had reviewed the source material used in the series, he didn’t believe them either.

“The Times has neither furnished any copy of the ten-dollar-a-day ad in question, nor identified when it appeared,” wrote Bernstein.

Since when do reporters and editors hand over their research dockets and source interviews to skeptical readers? Bernstein also insinuates that Nir, along with the paper’s team of translators and editors, just didn’t understand the Chinese job ads she was reading—even though Nir has made clear in several interviews that she worked with native speakers and that the articles were published in four languages simultaneously (English, Spanish, Korean, and Chinese).

On May 7, the Times ran an interview with Nir that helped readers understand the methodology behind the series. In this excerpt, the extensive translation and data organization becomes painfully clear.

With the help of six translators, two in each language — Spanish, Korean and Chinese — we read all of the clips from the last several years in newspapers in those languages from across the country. We looked at court cases and realized that underpayment is a tremendous problem. People were trafficked, deprived of money; people were being paid a dollar an hour. These were just the ones that were cropping up.

I found out about these pickup spots in Flushing, where manicurists wait, like migrant workers, to be taken to jobs. I would go with a translator, sometimes with a team of translators, and I would say, “We would like to talk to you about your job. Could we have your phone number?” We got tons of women’s numbers, but because of politeness a lot of them would say yes, but I had days where I was stood up 20 times by 20 different people. For the 100 people who talked to me, I probably approached 300.

I realized this through keeping detailed spreadsheets of all the 100-plus workers that I interviewed. I had a page for Spanish workers, a page for Korean workers and a page for Chinese workers, and when I looked in the wage column, I realized that the Koreans were making $80-something, Chinese workers were making somewhere in the $50 range and Hispanics were making $40 or $30, working in the same salon.

But that’s not enough for Bernstein, who seems utterly convinced that Nir and the entire editorial staff of the Times have something to hide. In another sweeping accusation, Bernstein suggests that a pay-to-work “deal” workers reported was simply untrue.

The story reports that Ms. Ren had to pay $100 “in carefully folded bills” to a Long Island salon owner on her first day. According to the paper, this “deal”—paying a fee to get a job that may pay no salary at all initially—“was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area.” The paper presents no evidence whatsoever to support this broad and damning conclusion. For what it’s worth, in our twelve years in this business, we’ve never entered into such a “deal,” nor have we heard of such a thing.

The unfortunate thing about Bernstein’s attempt at debunking Nir’s research is that he offers no real evidence to contradict her reporting, other than reading a few Chinese-language classified ads himself. He doesn’t interview any low-level workers about whether they’ve ever been exploited in the industry. What he does report is paying his own workers “starting salaries of $70 a day, plus tips and commissions,” without clarifying how long their workdays are (Nir’s research found 12-hour days were common) or whether he was aware of his workers paying finder’s fees for jobs.

In response to Bernstein’s questioning “whether the reporter saw the ad at all,” Nir tweeted several photos of one of the many job ads reviewed for her series.

Shortly after the article released in May, Nir also tweeted a photo of some of the translators who worked on the research.

And on Monday, she and others tweeted a series of debunks of the debunk, accusing Bernstein of having pushing a biased agenda, mansplaining a seasoned professional journalist, and of generally not understanding the issues that came to light in her nail salon exposé—which, it must be acknowledged, resulted in immediate state-wide emergency measures ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to combat wage exploitation and poor health conditions in nail salons.

Another Twitter user pointed out a passage in Bernstein’s article that defends the economic exploitation inherent in the industry, suggesting that immigrant families should be happy with working for “very low wages in exchange for the experience” and that if families pool their meager incomes, “their combined earnings could be several hundred dollars a day or more.”

The editorial staff at the New York Times is fiercely defending Nir’s reporting and research. Deputy Metro Editor Michael Luo published a Storify that directly attacked claims in Bernstein’s article and provided links to similar investigations by Fusion and Animal New York that found the same kinds of labor exploitation.

Luo also tweeted a link to an article (in Chinese) in which one salon owner said he thought he was being extra nice by offering a $10 per day apprentice wage.

Update 12:51pm, July 28: The New York Times published a response to the allegations of mishandling research Tuesday.

Photo via starsandspirals/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) 

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*First Published: Jul 27, 2015, 7:46 pm CDT