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.
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: