Truth, Lies, and Second Chances
Last year, a journalist's attempted comeback from a 25-year-old plagiarism scandal was canceled by new charges of misconduct. Now, a lawsuit claims she was wronged.
In October 2020, The Atlantic published a long feature, bylined “Ruth S. Barrett,” titled “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports: Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents.” The piece chronicled the mad scramble by some suburban parents to use “boutique sports” like fencing, lacrosse, and squash to give their children a leg up in admissions to elite universities. The article received widespread praise, but also got considerably less flattering attention from Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple. Wemple’s October 24, 2020 column focused on the writer’s past—Barrett was once Ruth Shalit, the bright young star whose journalistic career in the 1990s was derailed by a plagiarism scandal—and suggested that in view of those past sins, her new piece should be approached with considerable caution. He also flagged what he thought were suspicious details.
A few days later, The Atlantic ran a lengthy editor’s note which stated that after the article was published, “new information emerged that has raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.” The note accused Barrett of having perpetrated a major deception on the magazine by helping a main source—a Connecticut sports mom identified as “Sloane”—invent an extra child to better disguise her identity. The piece talked about Sloane having three daughters and a son; in fact, she only had three daughters. A couple of other minor details were corrected as well. The note also said that “in the interests of transparency” Barrett’s byline should have included her maiden name, under which she wrote during the earlier controversy. It ended with a devastating mea culpa:
We decided to assign Barrett this freelance story in part because more than two decades separated her from her journalistic malpractice at The New Republic and because in recent years her work has appeared in reputable magazines. We took into consideration the argument that Barrett deserved a second chance to write feature stories such as this one. We were wrong to make this assignment, however. It reflects poor judgment on our part, and we regret our decision.
Then, on November 1, the magazine took down the article (while keeping a PDF of the print version online) and published a new note, saying that the piece was being retracted in its entirety. While no new inaccuracies were reported and the piece had been thoroughly fact-checked, the editors said they had concluded that the author’s actions had “fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process” and they could no longer vouch for its accuracy.
Barrett’s disgrace seemed complete. But now, her thwarted second act is getting a sequel: Last night, she filed a complaint against The Atlantic and its former editor Donald Peck in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking $1 million in injunctive and monetary damages for defamation, breach of contract, and tortious interference. No one knows, of course, how this lawsuit will turn out. But the complaint, an embargoed copy of which was provided to me shortly before the filing, does suggest that the story is more complicated than many people—myself included—initially assumed. It doesn’t mean that Barrett did nothing wrong. But it does raise difficult questions about journalistic ethics, redemption, political biases, and snap judgments.
In the interests of transparency, I should note that I briefly knew Barrett, then Ruth Shalit, in the mid-1990s. Her 1992 journalistic debut was with Reason, the libertarian magazine where I had, at the time, recently become a contributor. Shalit’s article, published in July of that year when she was still a senior at Princeton University, criticized campus anti-rape activists for being more interested in radical politics than in helping victims and recounted a bizarre episode in which a speaker at Princeton’s Take Back the Night rally got so caught up in the fervor that she completely made up a brutal rape by a fellow student. Shalit went on to intern at The New Republic as a reporter-researcher. I can’t recall how we first connected, but I do know that we met in the summer of 1993 and that Shalit, then 23, excitedly told me she had just been offered a permanent position at TNR as associate editor. We met at least once after that (though, as I recall, the pitches I sent Shalit for TNR didn’t work out).
Shalit’s meteoric rise included gigs for The New York Times Magazine and a lucrative contract at GQ. Then, the trouble began: in 1994-95, she was caught in five instances of plagiarism, at TNR and at the Times Magazine. In one particularly bizarre incident, she filched from her old TNR boss Fred Barnes, for whom she had once interned, in a New York Times Magazine piece. Barnes’s line, “Like a British High Tory rather than an American conservative, Dole distrusts visions and visionaries,” migrated into Shalit’s piece in its entirety except for the word “High.” All the other incidents were equally minor and mystifying, since the pilfered phrases were small nuggets in extensively researched and well-written pieces. (Obviously, that doesn't mitigate the word theft, and Shalit's defense—that she accidentally pasted material from source notes into her text—was not particularly convincing given the multiple incidences.)
In 1995, Shalit also found herself in the middle of a controversy over a lengthy TNR piece examining racial politics at The Washington Post. The article delved into such thorny issues as white resentment about affirmative action and the anger of black reporters regarded as beneficiaries of preferential treatment, as well as claims that the Post’s news coverage soft-pedaled material that could offend the black community. Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. wrote a thunderous letter accusing her of fabrications and inaccuracies as well as “racial McCarthyism,” and a number of Post staffers she quoted said their quotes were distorted or taken out of context. The veracity of such claims is hard to assess, since the staffers had reasons to disavow comments that had angered their boss and many of their colleagues. But Shalit’s piece also contained some inaccuracies (e.g., she wrote that the Post had no black reporters on its national beat in 1972, when in fact there were two) and one glaring error: she mentioned two “old cronies” of then-Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry who had “served time” for corruption, but one of the men, Roy Littlejohn, had never even been accused. (The New Republic later settled his lawsuit.)
After a six-month leave of absence in 1996, Shalit returned and began to write primarily about cultural issues. But in 1999 her time at the magazine came to an end; she was, apparently, a casualty of the magazine’s much bigger scandal over Stephen Glass’s multiple fabrications. As David Carr put it in a feature on her departure in Washington City Paper, “Shalit’s situation became untenable … when she ended up paired with Glass in story after story suggesting that The New Republic was a hotbed of adolescently malevolent con artists with notepads.”
Some of her colleagues thought she got shafted. Jacob Weisberg told City Paper that Shalit was unfairly tarnished by linkage to Glass, even though comparing their misconduct was “like comparing a parking ticket to a war crime.”
My own view at the time was that Shalit was a smart and talented writer undone by premature success, which not only went to her head but also pushed her to take on much more than she was ready to handle. She admitted as much in her interview with Carr in City Paper. (It should be noted that Carr’s piece exaggerated her sins with a reference to “myriad plagiarism charges.”)
After her departure from the magazine, Shalit worked in advertising and wrote a column on the subject for Salon for two years. Gary Kamiya, Salon’s executive editor at the time, has high praise for her writing, which focused on branding and brand management in the early dot-com universe. “I edited her pretty carefully, following the ‘trust but verify’ motto, but we never had any problems with her work,” Kamiya told me in an email. “She did some of the best skewering anyone did of that whole inflated, hollow, Ponzi-scheme-ish era.” (On one occasion, he wrote, “One branding poobah was angry with a piece she wrote and accused her of something, but we looked into it and there was nothing there.”)
Subsequently, Shalit got married (acquiring her new last name) and had two kids. She also continued to contribute to various publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Elle.
The Atlantic piece would have been her return to big-league journalism.
Also in the interests of transparency: my reaction to the Atlantic implosion and the “editor’s note” was to tweet out a sarcastic comment: “Well, Ruth Shalit’s comeback certainly went well.” I have since deleted that tweet and its follow-up referring to Barrett’s past scandals, for the simple reason that I had not even properly read the “editor’s note”—just skimmed it enough to see that it seemed damning—when I made the comment. Being snippy on Twitter is easy.
When I was tipped off about the lawsuit and read the “editor’s note” carefully—as well as the Wemple critiques that led to the article’s retraction—I was struck by the triviality of some of the quibbles. For instance, Barrett had written that, as part of the suburban sports-crazed scene, “Backyards feature batting cages, pitching tunnels, fencing pistes, Olympic-size hockey rinks complete with floodlights and generators.” In his first article on the subject, Wemple wonders whether there are any actual “Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks” in Fairfield, Connecticut (the focus of Barrett’s article), then talks to the head of a company that builds outdoor rinks, and concludes: “Most of the home rinks in the area … fall shy of even the smaller NHL-standard rink size. (Olympic rinks are about 15 feet wider than NHL versions.)”
Interestingly, Wemple adds: “We know that we’re nitpicking. But when the former Ruth Shalit is writing for your publication, you nail down all Olympic-size claims.”
The Atlantic ran a correction. But surely “Olympic-size hockey rinks” would strike most people as permissible hyperbole, flagged—as Wemple concedes—only because Barrett is “the former Ruth Shalit.” (Barrett’s complaint points out that an April 2021 Atlantic piece by Caitlin Flanagan criticizing private-school culture sarcastically refers to fundraising for such school projects as “paving the locker rooms with gold coins” and “annexing Slovakia.”)
There were also questions about whether Barrett’s article exaggerated the fencing injuries suffered by one of her main subject’s daughters. Barrett wrote that Sloane’s husband called from a fencing tournament to say that “their middle daughter, a 12-year-old saber fencer, had been stabbed in the jugular during her first bout. The wound was right next to the carotid artery, and he was withdrawing her from the tournament and flying home.” The article noted that the girl had been hurt while fencing before, “on one occasion gashed so deeply in the thigh that blood seeped through her pants.”
After Wemple’s inquiries and more fact-checking, The Atlantic changed the wording in the first passage to, “The injury was right next to the carotid artery, and although it was not severe, he was withdrawing her from the tournament and flying home,” and in the second to “on one occasion, after she’d been struck repeatedly in the thigh, blood seeped through her pants.” Was the original version inaccurate? “Wound” is more typically used for an injury in which the skin is cut or pierced, but can refer to heavy bruising; the fact that the father was taking the girl home and not to the hospital makes it fairly clear she wasn’t bleeding from a cut in the neck. This seems, at worst, like a semantic issue of overdramatic language. (The incident happened on a Fourth of July weekend, and Barrett refers to it as a “Fourth of July massacre”—which no one could possibly take to mean that multiple people were slaughtered.) As for the description of the thigh injury, Barrett’s complaint notes that the pre-publication, the fact-checker had confirmed a description of it as “multiple red spots/striations [scratches] all over both legs, one deep enough that it was bleeding,” and no one suggested that the wording be changed.
As it happened, this paragraph also contained the article’s only mention of Sloane’s phantom son: Barrett wrote that Sloane’s husband was at the fencing tournament in Columbus, Ohio “with the couple’s two younger girls and son.” Wemple was able to track down Sloane—who the article stated had “asked to be identified by her middle name to protect her daughters’ privacy and college-recruitment chances”—and confirmed that she had three daughters but no son. (Frankly, one might suspect as much from the fact that she is described as concerned about repercussions for her daughters.)
According to the Atlantic editor’s note, “Sloane’s attorney told The Atlantic that she wanted to make herself less readily identifiable” and that inventing a son was a way to “protect her anonymity.” The attorney was claiming that Barrett had first proposed the invention and encouraged Sloane to lie to the fact-checker. The note said that Barrett denied instigating the deception but admitted to being “complicit,” after initially claiming that she herself was misled.
Yet Barrett’s complaint alleges that the note left out a key fact: namely, that Sloane had an agreement with The Atlantic promising her full confidentiality and had been willing to cooperate only on that condition. (In the article, Sloane spoke candidly and harshly about her disillusionment with niche-sports culture, but she and her daughters were still a part of that scene.) Indeed, the complaint says that Peck had previously acknowledged this in an email to the editor who had worked on the piece, Laurie Abraham—who left the magazine several months later—describing Sloane as “a source we agreed to shield.”
The lawsuit claims that during the editing and fact-checking process, The Atlantic was repeatedly derelict with regard to this agreement: “Ms. Barrett reminded her editors of her confidentiality agreement with Sloane but found that she could not get traction. … Although Ms. Barrett's editors at The Atlantic had been informed that Sloane's participation in the Article was based on a promise that she would not be identifiable, their commitment to honoring this promise was tepid at best.” As the complaint tells it, Barrett found herself caught between Sloane’s and her husband’s aggressive demands for more “veiling” and The Atlantic’s adamant refusals. (The editors wouldn’t budge, for instance, on omitting the specific name of a California tournament where Sloane’s eldest daughter was the subject of a refereeing dispute.) When Barrett asked for “a brief disclaimer stating that several minor identifying details about Sloane had been changed to preserve her confidentiality and protect her children’s privacy,” she was told that “it was the policy of The Atlantic not to run such disclaimers.” Eventually, according to the complaint, she went along with the idea of padding Sloane’s family with a fake son in order to alleviate her concerns and give her some masking.
The complaint alleges that the Atlantic policy with regard to the alteration of minor facts for the purpose of masking sources is inconsistent and confusing. In particular, it says that precisely such a masking technique was employed during the editing of Barrett’s own article. A high school lacrosse coach’s quote—“My own captain is one of my best defensive kids ever. 4.2 GPA. I couldn't get him into an Ivy. I tried.”—was changed to, “I’ve had multiple high-end players with worthy grades. I couldn’t get them into an Ivy. I tried.” According to the complaint, “[w]hen Ms. Barrett asked her editor and fact-checker why the quote had been altered … she was told that the change was at the instigation of the magazine’s legal department” because the original quote made the lacrosse captain too identifiable. Is a phantom son worse than multiple phantom lacrosse players?
The lawsuit covers much more ground. (Among other things, it alleges that the claim by Sloane’s lawyer blaming Barrett for the invention of the fictitious son should not have been given any credibility at all, since he had made other provably false accusations against Barrett.) But one issue in particular stands out: the suggestion in the editor’s note that the byline “Ruth S. Barrett” was an insidious attempt by the author to mask her checkered past.
The editor’s note says that this byline was used “at [Barrett’s] request.” The complaint alleges that, while this claim is technically true, it omits a key fact: that her request was to change it to “Ruth S. Barrett” from “Ruth Barrett,” which how it appeared in the first version of the galley proofs.
The note also says that Barrett had recently used the byline “Ruth Shalit Barrett” in other publications, with the apparent implication that she tried to disguise her identity for this specific occasion. But she had actually used “Ruth Shalit Barrett” and “Ruth S. Barrett” interchangeably, even at the same publication (her articles at Elle feature both bylines). Moreover, according to the complaint, Barrett had asked the editors if her bio could include a link to her website, which features some of her past articles under all three bylines: “Ruth Shalit,” “Ruth Shalit Barrett,” and “Ruth S. Barrett.” She was told that it’s against Atlantic policy to put links in bios.
For what it’s worth, Barrett’s website identifies her as Ruth S. Barrett and makes no mention of her past controversies. One can speculate to what extent she wanted to draw attention away from her past as Ruth Shalit. But she could hardly have hoped to conceal it, considering that her writings under the name “Barrett” had already drawn attention from, among others, ill-wishers at Gawker.
What to make of all this? The specific details, and the evidence to back them up, will no doubt be hashed out during the legal process; the complaint says that Barrett has numerous records supporting her claims.
Even assuming that Barrett’s version of the events is completely accurate, one can certainly still question her professional and personal judgment: allowing even a very minor “fictoid” to get into print without informing your editors is an obvious no-no, and doing this when you’re trying to rebuild a career after some notorious lapses is mind-bogglingly reckless. Barrett had to know she would be under extra scrutiny. It also sounds like she compounded the problem by initially denying knowledge of the deception.
On the other hand, the complaint does make a strong case that the Atlantic editors were quite cavalier about their confidentiality obligations to Sloane (perhaps because they felt an affluent suburbanite’s fears of compromising her social standing and her kids’ academic prospects did not deserve to be taken very seriously). This may have put Barrett in a position where, given Sloane’s centrality to the article, her only other option was to pull the piece after months of work.
What’s more, the editor’s note went much further to portray Barrett’s piece as fraudulent through and through—even though Sloane’s non-existent son was a throwaway detail, and extensive fact-checking and re-checking (both by Wemple and by The Atlantic post-publication) had not found anything wrong with the piece except for the nitpicks mentioned above. As the coup de grace, the note stated that the editors were wrong to give Barrett the assignment in the first place given her history.
That was, in effect, also Wemple’s position. He pointed out that while Barrett’s earlier post-TNR forays into journalism were mere “toe-dipping exercises,” the Atlantic piece was “in another category.” His tone implied that for her to move into that category was a moral transgression, and it’s fairly clear that he set out to dismantle the piece with the express purpose of thwarting Barrett’s attempted comeback.
While it would be a stretch to see Barrett as a casualty of political “cancel culture,” culture-war issues almost certainly played a role in her latest downfall. Professional lapses aside, she is associated with the “old” New Republic of Marty Peretz, Andrew Sullivan, and Leon Wieseltier, seen today as a bastion of whiteness; her piece on racial issues at The Washington Post, which was denounced as racist even in 1995, had become downright toxic in 2020 in the midst of the racial “reckoning.” After The Atlantic posted its initial corrections, Barrett was attacked on Twitter as not only a “mediocre writer” and a “multi-plagiarist” but the author of a “racist attempt to disparage The Washington Post’s diversity.” (In fact, as former American Journalism Review president and distinguished civil rights journalist Reese Cleghorn wrote at the time, Shalit’s piece was far more “layered” than her critics acknowledged: It discussed the frustrations of black journalists at the Post and stressed that having a diverse newsroom was imperative.) Some even tried to find a racially problematic subtext in the retracted niche sports piece—even though it was a scorching critique of a very white and very privileged subculture.
Barrett’s defenders point out that other prominent journalists and writers, including National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and the late author and critic Elizabeth Wurtzel, survived plagiarism scandals. Mike Barnicle, whose journalistic sins include not only plagiarism but an almost entirely fabricated story about interracial bonding between two families with cancer-stricken children, lost his Boston Globe column but quickly resurfaced at the Boston Herald and is still a regular on MSNBC.
So should Barrett be allowed a comeback, a quarter-century after scandals that happened when she was in her mid-20s? “Obviously I believe she should, since we hired her,” says Kamiya, the former Salon editor. “In general I believe people deserve a second chance. We gave her one, and she didn’t let us down.”
Barrett’s lawsuit is clearly an attempt to get her relaunch after all. It’s far too early to tell how it will fare, or how her claims will stand up in court. (An Atlantic spokeswoman has said that the magazine stands by its decision and will file a motion to dismiss.) But at the very least, it should prompt a second look at the story of her failed comeback.
Updated January 9 with The Atlantic’s response and the amount of damages sought.
Correction: The original text of this article stated that Roy Littlejohn’s lawsuit against The New Republic was settled with no monetary damages, as reported by the late David Carr in the Washington City Paper in 1999. We have been informed that in fact, the settlement included a payout. Arc regrets the error.