New York Times

How The New York Times' Uses Rhetorical Ploys To Defend Its Shoddy Nail Salon Series

When cornered on facts, claim bias.


The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on Monday looking at the impact of The New York Times' nail salon series. It included a summary quote from Times editor Michael Luo defending the paper's coverage—and attacking Reason:

In late October, Reason magazine attempted to dismantle [Sarah Maslin] Nir's reporting in a series of articles alleging that her account was not just exaggerated, but factually wrong…Luo, Nir's editor, tells CJR that Reason was far too credulous of accounts by nail salon owners and industry trade groups. Indeed, the two experts Reason quotes to challenge the Times' second installment belong to interested industry groups, and many of the alleged misquotes come from sources…who are understandably unhappy with how they were portrayed.

Let's backtrack. In October, I wrote a three-part dissection of the Times' series on nail salons, countering its claim that workers in the industry are routinely exploited. Among other things, I found that several of the Times' sources claim they were misquoted by the the paper; that the Times' analysis relied on mistranslated or misinterpreted classified ads; that it conducted a methodologically shoddy wage survey; and that it disregarded several peer-reviewed studies contradicting its claim that working in a nail salons causes cancer and miscarriages.

Nail salon owners protest in front of The New York Times building, October 27, 2015. |||

The articles in Reason prompted New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan to conclude that the original story had gone "too far in generalizing about an entire industry" and that "the findings, and the language…should have been dialed back — in some instances substantially."

The "two experts" the CJR story specifically refers to as affiliated with "interested industry groups"—and who I interviewed for the third installment in the series—are chemists David Steinberg and Doug Schoon.

Steinberg and Schoon weren't "unhappy with how they were portrayed," as the CJR story put it; they were unhappy that the paper lent its imprimatur to junk theories. Steinberg, a retired chemistry professor at Fairleigh Dickinson, wasn't even quoted in the story or interviewed by the Times. Both do consulting work for cosmetic companies, but frankly it isn't easy to find scientists expert on the chemical makeup of nail polish who don't.

After branding the story's critics as representatives of "interested industry groups," Luo thinks he's justified in ignoring them. In fact, the original Times story relied on a variety of interested sources, including labor attorneys and a well-financed California-based NGO that routinely put out alarmist material on the dangers of working in nail salons. That, however, doesn't undercut the Times' reporting, which should be—and has been—evaluated based on the facts it presented.

You'd hope an outlet like the Columbia Journalism Review would know to call foul when an interview subject attacks critics instead of criticism. That's been the Times' tactic all along. As Margaret Sullivan noted, the paper didn't respond initially to Reason's critique in part because "the magazine, which generally opposes regulation, is reporting from a biased point of view." As media critic and NYU Professor Jay Rosen wrote in response on Twitter: "So the magazine that questions your reporting has a POV? Not a good reason to ignore it."

Here's how CJR sums up the overall controversy surrounding the Times' nail salon coverage: "Even if the extent of the abuse in the nails industry was exaggerated, the fact of it isn't being questioned."

When generalizing about what's happening in an entire industry, it's best to use precise language. There's some abuse in the nail salon industry, like in any industry. I wouldn't be surprised if there's more abuse in journalism.

The point is that manicurists are skilled workers whose services are in high demand and they tend to have some bargaining power. The paper picked the wrong industry for a "Dickensian portrait"—to borrow the phrase of former Times journalist Richard Bernstein, who wrote a brutal takedown of his former employer's nail salon coverage, which was published in The New York Review of Books three months before my story appeared.

The nail salon industry is planning a major demonstration in Albany next month to protest the state regulatory crackdown that was inspired by the Times' coverage. Up until this point, only the Chinese nail salon owners have participated in the protests. Leaders from the Korean nail salon community recently decided to ask their members to join them. So stay tuned, because the controversy isn't going away anytime soon.

For more on the topic, read my original three-part series. Or watch the video, which features Bernstein, among others:

NEXT: Cornell's Insane Christmas Decoration Rules: No Santa Claus, Holly, or Trees with Bows

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  1. But the well-intentioned progs were so eager to White Man’s Burden the poor exploited workers out of their jobs. Don’t you care about intentions?

    1. “After branding the story’s critics representatives of “interested industry groups,” Luo thinks he justified in ignoring them.”

      This shit pisses me off so much. Progs seem to have this unspoken axiom that a proposition is true or false based on who benefits from it. *

      Any non-hysterical view of GMOs is written off because the evil Monsanto Corporation benefits from people with those views. Pro-gun arguments are null and void because for-profit corporations manufacture the guns. Fossil fuels are irredeemably evil, and anyone who says otherwise is just in the pocket of Big Oil!

      * Of course, this doesn’t apply to:
      – Climatologists claiming that more research (e.g. money) is needed to research climate change
      – Some government agency arguing that a problem can only be solved with more government regulation
      – Solar and wind power companies putting out “studies” that show that we must all switch to their products at once or else the temperature will spiral out of control and we’ll all burn to death or freeze to death or something
      – Labor unions claiming that if we don’t all pay dues to them, the working class will be forced into literal slavery

      1. Whoops, that post wasn’t supposed to be a reply to your comment…

  2. …the magazine, which generally opposes regulation, is reporting from a biased point of view…

    Pot, meet black kettle.

    1. Being a pro-regulation publication is like being a pro-sun-rising publication.

      1. It’s okay to be a science-denier if you really want to push your angle.

      2. They’re simpering lickspittles whenever they’re discussing Obama, and they still have the nerve to say something like that.

  3. Another reason why people should be so proud they went to the Columbia J-school?

  4. Speaking of the NYT

    The recent decision by the Fed to raise interest rates is the latest example of the rigged economic system. Big bankers and their supporters in Congress have been telling us for years that runaway inflation is just around the corner. They have been dead wrong each time. Raising interest rates now is a disaster for small business owners who need loans to hire more workers and Americans who need more jobs and higher wages. As a rule, the Fed should not raise interest rates until unemployment is lower than 4 percent. Raising rates must be done only as a last resort ? not to fight phantom inflation.

    Bernie Sanders knows how to fix the Fed.

    Whatever you do, don’t read the NYT’s “favorite comments”. Seriously.

    1. I never read the NYT comments seriously.

  5. If I were elected president, the foxes would no longer guard the henhouse. To ensure the safety and soundness of our banking system, we need to fundamentally restructure the Fed’s governance system to eliminate conflicts of interest. Board members should be nominated by the president and chosen by the Senate. Banking industry executives must no longer be allowed to serve on the Fed’s boards and to handpick its members and staff. Board positions should instead include representatives from all walks of life ? including labor, consumers, homeowners, urban residents, farmers and small businesses.

    That oughta fix it.

  6. “You’d hope an outlet like the Columbia Journalism Review would know to call foul when an interview subject attacks critics instead of criticism. “

    The NYT and the Columbia Journalism Review exist mainly to defend their own reputations. They’re not interested in objective “truth” so much as maintaining their own above-the-law status as arbiters.

    If the story has been released by some *other* news outlet, i’m sure both the CJR and NYT would go to great lengths to ensure that any journalistic impropriety, questionable claims of fact, etc. were widely exposed and used to damage as many reputations as possible.

    However, in this case, since its *their own* reputations at stake, the NYC liberal-journalist elites will circle wagons and cast doubt on the qualifications, motivations, of anyone that dares question their professional conduct. It may have been shoddy work, but its *their shoddy work*… and the most you’ll ever squeeze out of them is an exasperated, “well i suppose small minor things may have been done better”, before they do everything they can to discredit and destroy you.

    1. ENB was insulting her on twitter somewhat recently.

    2. Yes, yes, but….would you?

    3. The… high.. school.. she went to :

      The 2014-15 tuition is $41,900.


      But don’t worry, guys, America is a classless society, and our betters on the staff of the New York Times will make sure we vote for the right people to keep things that way.

  7. The NYT sets the agenda for other MSM outlets – telling them what stories are important, how the stories support a broader narrative, and what stories should be played down because they clash with the narrative.

    The CJR is like the NYT for journalism – letting us know what journalism scandals there are, and if the scandal affects, say, the NYT, how the scandal should be minimized even if it can’t be fully denied.

    1. The key point is to make one or two concessions, then explain how the Real Scandal is the right-wing media blowing it all out of proportion as part of their sinister agenda. Eg:

      “Maybe it’s true that Democratic Senator McIntire had sex with a sheep once or twice, but doesn’t make him a ‘serial sheep abuser’ as Fox News claims in its typical wildly-exaggerated manner. The matter has to be viewed in the context of Scottish culture, in which human-ovine intimacy has less of a stigma than in traditional American culture. As Haggis McTavish of the Scottish Anti-Defamation League put it, ‘the Republicans are tapping into anti-Scottish bigotry. We rarely have sex with sheep, but when we do it’s in the context of a mutually-fulfilling, loving relationship.’ And the Republicans are hypocrites to bring up sheep sex, because look at all their divorces and sex scandals! And really, isn’t the important issue about the right-wing supporting the 1% as it exploits Americans?”

  8. You’d hope an outlet like the Columbia Journalism Review would know to call foul when an interview subject attacks critics instead of criticism.

    Has Anna Merlin weighed in yet?

    1. Merlin? More like Morgan Le Fay!

      1. +1 Thomas Malory

  9. The CJR sounds like an industry publication for the journalism industry. That means its biased and we can ignore it.

    1. Close; what i said above, more or less = the CJR is the “trade association” for upper-west-side-style elitist-liberal journalism

      they pretend to have a mandate to defend journalism as a ‘public good’…. but they’re really just there to represent and defend their ‘members’, of whom the NYT is the Big Kahuna A#1

      When little pipsqueaks like Reason point out the glaring errors and professional sins of their Top Men, they will go through the motions of pretending they give a shit and “to be sure” and “errors were made” and “on further review, things might have been done better”… all as a preamble to shooting the messenger, absolving anyone of guilt, and projecting blame back on the critics, casting doubt on their motives and qualifications.

      their shit doesn’t stink.

  10. They’re just so pissed you snatched their Pulitzer out from under them

  11. The NYT is not the “Gray Lady”, it is the Gray Whore.

    1. The Old Gray Whore ain’t what she used to be.

  12. The CJR obviously never read the Reason critique of the NYT article or they chose to ignore it.

    They cherry picked two Latina manicurists whose lives were “incrementally” made better because the recent crackdown affected ethnic social caste within the industry (not uncommon in the world of undocumented labor) and pretended as if they were as impacted as much as nail salon owners whose reputation was tarred and feathered.

    Why isn’t there some cognitive dissonance going on in the brains of these leftists? If ethnic businesses had to pay undocumented workers the same wage and benefits as they would to American citizens, they wouldn’t hire them in the first place.

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