Catching Up With The Manhattan Contrarian -- Nail Salon Scare Edition

Back on May 7 and 8, the New York Times came out with one of those big two-article exposes, running around 7000 words.  The author was Sarah Maslin Nir.  This series claimed that the nail salon industry in New York was grossly and systematically underpaying its workers and, moreover, poisoning them with dangerous chemicals.  The two Times articles are here and here.

The Manhattan Contrarian was on the story just a few days later, on May 13.  I called the Times series a "scam" and "journalistic drivel."  I was highly critical of numerous commenters (including NBC, Jezebel, and even Rich Lowry of National Review) who had inexplicably swallowed the Times's obviously false reporting without critical analysis.  Admittedly, I did not go out and re-report the Times's story.  The bases for my conclusions were three things: (1) my own knowledge of what you have to pay to hire people in Manhattan, (2) the indisputable fact that people are not stupid, and (3) the systematic omission from the Times series of any mention of the tips earned by the workers, which were obviously a major part of their compensation.

Of course, meanwhile nobody paid attention to me and everybody paid attention to the New York Times.  Our governor Andrew Cuomo promptly bought into the Times's story, sicced the labor regulators on the salon industry, and imposed new "bonding" requirements on salon owners to secure their obligation to pay wages.  Numerous salons went out of business.

Well, now an enterprising guy named Jim Epstein at Reason Hit & Run has actually gone out and re-reported the story.  It looks like he is planning a three part series, with the first part available here.  They are a little late getting to this, but on the other hand I credit them with having done a lot of work.  And yes, it's as bad as I predicted.  Nir systematically misquoted people, took evidence out of context, and mistranslated things from the Chinese or Korean.  Pretty much everything about her story was false.  By all means you should read the whole thing, but I'll give you a few examples:

  • To support a statement that the "vast majority" of manicure workers earn less than the minimum wage, Nir interviewed Sangho Lee, President of the Korean-American Nail Salon Association, and paraphrases him as follows:  "[Lee] declined a request to address issues of underpayment. So many owners do not pay minimum wage, he said, that he believed answering any questions would hurt the industry."  Lee, who speaks limited English, tells Epstein that what he told Nir was:  "I told her that even though 80 to 90 percent of the industry pays much more than the minimum wage, it would inappropriate for me to say anything negative about the industry as the president of the leading industry association."  
  • Nir specifically discussed wages at a salon on the East Side of Manhattan called Iris Nails, where Nir claimed that wages for starting workers were "$30 and $40 a day."  Epstein interviews the owner of the salon, Alex Park, a Korean immigrant, who provided the following very different information:  "He estimates that his lowest-level employees earn about $180 a day, including tips, and his most experienced employees can earn as much as $400 per day including tips and commission."  
  • Epstein goes deeply into Nir's ridiculous omission of the whole subject of tips.  Sample: "Nir’s report doesn’t discuss gratuities. In fact, nowhere does the Times coverage attempt to gauge average daily tips in the industry or what workers actually take home in total compensation.  This is like writing a 7,000-word piece on what waiters make for a living but focusing only on base compensation."  Epstein quotes Aiming Feng, an accountant specializing in the nail salon industry, as saying that, at least during certain seasons, tips in the nail salon industry can exceed base compensation.  Of course, that was already obvious to everyone who thought about it.

You get the picture.  Do you actually trust anything that comes out of the New York Times?  Meanwhile, yesterday there was a big protest at the Times building here in midtown by salon owners and workers demanding that the Times retract and correct the series.  Signs read "Apology Now.  Fire Nir!" and "Shame On You New York Times, Your Lies Kill Our Shops."  At the Times, they seem to think that their false "exposes" have no real world consequences.