For their November issue, The Atlantic published a piece titled “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents” by Ruth S. Barrett. The article, which followed a series of obsessive parents pushing their children into sports such as lacrosse, crew, fencing, and water polo in order to up their chances of receiving a scholarship at certain colleges, certainly taps into the ongoing discussion that many have been having in the wake of the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal.
However, much of the buzz around the article when it was published was less about the topic and more about the author herself. While The Atlantic originally posted the name of the author as Ruth S. Barrett, it didn’t take much sleuthing for many to realize it was Ruth Shalit Barrett. Eric Wemple of the Washington Post certainly noticed and penned an opinion column shortly after the article went up, detailing why it was important to point out that Barrett (previously known as Ruth Shalit) was the writer.
That’s not just any Ruth S. Barrett; it’s Ruth Shalit Barrett — the same Ruth Shalit who left Washington in the late 1990s after laying down a trail of journalistic scandal. A 1992 graduate of Princeton University, Shalit rose quickly to an associate editorship at the New Republic, contributions to the New York Times Magazine and a $45,000-per-year contract with GQ. But with those successes came problems. Shalit was busted in two significant instances of plagiarism, which she blamed on accidental cut-and-paste operations. “It doesn’t matter that it happened inadvertently. That’s an excuse. I’ve flagellated myself and groveled and begged forgiveness,” Shalit said at the time.
On top of the plagiarism charges, Shalit received heavy criticism for a 13,000-word story for the New Republic on race relations at The Post. It was an exhaustive article heavy on criticism from anonymous Post staffers suggesting that the paper’s diversity push compromised hiring standards. The opus was undermined by significant factual errors. One was the allegation that D.C. contractor Roy Littlejohn had “served time” for corruption — though Littlejohn wasn’t even charged with such an offense. The magazine later settled a lawsuit from Littlejohn.
Wemple points out that Barrett had written some pieces for Elle, Gawker, and other outlets as something of a “toe-dipping exercise,” with The Atlantic piece presumably acting as a high-profile chance to restart her career without the baggage of her past.
Unfortunately for Barrett, if she was hoping to avoid rehashing her plagiaristic past, it does not appear that she’s put those tactics behind her at all.
Wemple followed up on his first column with a second one on Friday, noting that there appeared to be some inconsistencies in The Atlantic article. Chief among them was the mention of a woman named “Sloane.” Specifically, the article discusses her son as well as her daughter, who apparently suffered a garish injury while fencing. No one had been able to verify the events as they’d been described based on high school fencing records in the region, nor had they been able to clarify that the son actually existed. That, compounded with a few other details that seemed to defy verifiability, led WaPo to reach out to The Atlantic to confirm them. At which time, it appears, they could not.
Saturday, a lengthy editor’s note was added to the top of Barrett’s article, detailing how “Sloane” does not, in fact, have a son. Plus, the details around her daughter’s injury were incorrectly described. It also points out that other errors have been corrected and they continue to fact-check the article to ensure that other details are not incorrect or embellished. The editor’s note also clarifies that they have updated Barrett’s byline so it was clearer who the author is and the baggage she brought with her. And it notes that they “regret the decision” to assign her to the story in the first place.
Update: On Sunday, The Atlantic officially retracted the piece:
Editor’s Note: After The Atlantic published this article, new information emerged that raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.
We have decided to retract this article. We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.
We draw a distinction between retraction and removal. We believe that scrubbing the article from the internet would not meet our standards for transparency, and we believe it is important to preserve access to the article for the historical record. We have decided to take down the online version but to make available a PDF of the article as it appears in our November 2020 issue.
We are sharing with our readers what we have learned so you may understand how we came to this decision. We have established that Barrett deceived The Atlantic and its readers about a section of the story that concerns a person referred to as “Sloane.”
The editor’s note continues on from there, but it’s mostly rephrasing what was in Saturday’s editor’s note. However, the final paragraph is new:
Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.
For the record, here is what was in Saturday’s editor’s note:
Editor’s Note: After The Atlantic published this article, new information emerged that has raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.
We have established that Barrett deceived The Atlantic and its readers about a section of the story that concerns a person referred to as “Sloane.” We are sharing with our readers what we have learned so far.
The original version of this article stated that Sloane has a son. Before publication, Sloane confirmed this detail to be true to The Atlantic’s fact-checking department. After publication, when a Washington Post media critic asked us about the accuracy of portions of the article, our fact-checking department reached out to Sloane to recheck certain details. Through her attorney, Sloane informed us that she does not, in fact, have a son. We have independently corroborated that Sloane does not have a son, and we have corrected the story to remove the reference to her having a son.
In explaining Sloane’s reasoning for telling our fact-checker she had a son, Sloane’s attorney told The Atlantic that she wanted to make herself less readily identifiable. Her attorney also said that according to Sloane, Barrett had first proposed the invention of a son, and encouraged Sloane to deceive The Atlantic as a way to protect her anonymity.
When we asked Barrett about these allegations, she initially denied them, saying that Sloane had told her she had a son, and that she had believed Sloane. The next day, when we questioned her again, she admitted that she was “complicit” in “compounding the deception” and that “it would not be fair to Sloane” to blame her alone for deceiving The Atlantic. Barrett denies that the invention of a son was her idea, and denies advising Sloane to mislead The Atlantic’s fact-checkers, but told us that “on some level I did know that it was BS” and “I do take responsibility.”
Sloane’s attorney claimed that there are several other errors about Sloane in the article but declined to provide The Atlantic with examples. Barrett says that the fabricated son is the only detail about which she deceived our fact-checkers and editors. Our fact-checking department is continuing to thoroughly recheck the article.
We have already corrected and clarified other details in the story. During the initial fact-checking process, we corroborated many details of Sloane’s story with sources other than Sloane. But the checking of some details of Sloane’s story relied solely on interviews and other communications with Sloane or her husband or both of them.
We have clarified a detail about a neck injury sustained by Sloane’s middle daughter, to be more precise about its severity. We have corrected a detail about a thigh injury, originally described as a deep gash but more accurately described as a skin rupture that bled through a fencing uniform. And we’ve corrected the location of a lacrosse family mentioned in the article: They do not live in Greenwich, Connecticut, but in another town in Fairfield County.
On October 22, we noted and corrected another error in the story: The article originally referenced Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks, but although the private rinks are large and equipped with floodlights and generators, they are not Olympic-size.
We are also updating Barrett’s byline. Originally, we referred to her as Ruth S. Barrett. When writing recently for other magazines, Barrett was identified by her full name, Ruth Shalit Barrett. (Barrett is her married name.) In 1999, when she was known by Ruth Shalit, she left The New Republic, where she was an associate editor, after plagiarism and inaccurate reporting were discovered in her work. We typically defer to authors on how their byline appears—some authors use middle initials, for example, or shorter versions of their given name. We referred to Barrett as Ruth S. Barrett at her request, but in the interest of transparency, we should have included the name that she used as her byline in the 1990s, when the plagiarism incidents occurred. We have changed the byline on this article to Ruth Shalit Barrett.
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.
We are continuing to review this article. We will correct any errors we find, and we will communicate our findings to our readers as speedily as possible.
Wemple took to Twitter to say that he believes there is still work to do in correcting the article.
There's still a lot in there to correct, imo. The distortions and nonsense in the piece all lean in one direction — toward making the parents of Fairfield Co. appear more unreasonable and tyrannical and status-conscious than they are.
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) October 31, 2020
The article, which almost seemed too good to be true given the current state of affairs, with a perception that wealthy parents are doing anything they can to get their kids into Ivy League schools and achieve a certain societal status, was in fact too good to be true. Or at least that the writer went into the piece wanting to tell a certain story, facts be damned.
Barrett, who had long ago joined the list of writers whose reputation for plagiarism followed them wherever they went (Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair), can expect to remain there now for the foreseeable future.