The New York Times on Tuesday published a lengthy and pointed rebuttal to ex-reporter and present-day spa-owner Richard Bernstein, who questioned the details of the Times’ bombshell investigation into the working conditions of nail salon employees. Signed by Executive Editor Dean Baquet, the paper’s response hits hard, saying that “the New York Review of Books chose to publish what is essentially an example of industry advocacy, not unbiased journalism.”
“Mr. Bernstein criticizes The Times for saying the ‘vast majority’ of workers are underpaid, but our reporting supports that conclusion,” the response says. “He faults what he calls our ‘Dickensian’ portrayal of the industry. We think the term is apt.”
The two-part investigation by reporter Sarah Maslin Nir, published in May, uncovered an industry rife with mistreatment of mostly Asian immigrants, who Nir reported are underpaid and work under illegal and dangerous conditions. It is widely viewed as an early contender for a Pulitzer Prize.
In response to Nir’s investigation, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo assigned a task force to review the industry's practices statewide, while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised a citywide crackdown as well.
Bernstein, however, warned that a “quest for impact can overwhelm a newspaper’s primary responsibility for accuracy.
“[I]n extrapolating from the experience of Ms. Ren to make assertions about that 'vast majority,' the paper has put its tremendous prestige and power behind a demonstrably misleading depiction of the nail salon business as a whole,” Bernstein wrote, referring to a salon worker who was profiled in Nir's report.
A key argument in Bernstein’s piece questioned the existence of one of Nir’s more startling discoveries -- classified ads soliciting salon workers to work for $10 a day. Bernstein wrote that neither he nor his wife, who is Chinese and a partner in his business, can recall ever seeing an ad like that.
The Times cites the dates the ads appeared in different papers and offered to provide Bernstein with copies.
Times editor Michael Luo, who edited Nir’s series, posted a copy of one of the ads on Facebook on Sunday.
“Mr. Bernstein produced much fine and admirable work during his lengthy tenure at The Times,” the paper’s Tuesday response says. “To his credit, he has been upfront about being part of the salon industry and having a vested financial interest in its health. Still, that doesn’t alter the fact that he has taken on the role of a partisan defender, not a journalist.”