When Giving a Second Chance Goes Horribly Wrong

In the November 2020 edition of The Atlantic, the magazine published an article by “Ruth S. Barrett” with the headline “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents”

Clocking in at approximately 6,500 words, the piece was ultra-wealthy parents and their efforts to get their children on Ivy League teams for niche sports such as fencing, squash and lacrosse. It told tales of gruesome injuries at youth events, parents spending extravagant amounts of money on coaching their children and even building “Olympic-size hockey rinks” for their kids.

Unfortunately for The Atlantic, they have been forced to retract the article. Replaced by just an editor’s note and a PDF version of the original piece, the magazine has acknowledged multiple factual errors in the work and they further claim that they were “deceived” by the article’s author.

However, that deception should not have come as a surprise. Though the name Ruth S. Barrett may not turn many heads, her full name, Ruth Shalit Barrett, may well. Ruth S. Barrett is the married name of Ruth Shalit, a well-known journalist who, in the 1990s, faced multiple allegations of journalistic malpractice including plagiarism and fabrication.

The Atlantic, for their part, was aware of this and wanted to give Barrett a second chance. However, according to their editor’s note, they regret that decision and that it reflects “poor judgment” on their part.

Looking at Barrett’s history and how the teardown of this story happened, it’s very difficult to argue otherwise.

A Brief History of Ruth Shalit Barrett

Barrett was graduated from Princeton University in 1992 and quickly rose to prominence in journalism circles. She found herself serving as an associate editor at The New Republic but also did freelance work for GQ and other publications.

She was well known for being a fresh young voice who could write compelling stories that were both entertaining and informative. Because of this, her star rose and she became a celebrity in her own right.

However, that celebrity began to take knocks almost right out of the gate. According to a 1999 report by Washington City Paper, Barrett was beset by a “myriad of plagiarism allegations”, at least some of which she blamed on computer copy and paste errors.

Barrett managed to persist through those allegations and even continue to grow in popularity. But then she crossed a much different line in 1995 when she was accused of making significant factual errors in a New Republic piece about affirmative action policies in the Washington Post.

Specifically, she had claimed that D.C contractor Roy Littlejohn had served a prison sentence for corruption. However, Littlejohn had never even been charged with the crime and he quickly filed a lawsuit against the magazine. That lawsuit was later settled.

Though the lawsuit-drawing error was likely due to someone transposing two names, the piece was accused of making several other major factual errors including misquoting and getting several facts about the Washington Post’s policy incorrect.

Despite this, Barrett remained at the New Republic until 1999. Her ultimate downfall, by most accounts, was not any action she had done but the Stephen Glass scandal of 1998.

Much like Barrett, Glass worked at The New Republic but was found to be a serious and serial fabulist, making up portions of 27 of his 41 features. After he was fired, pressure was also placed on Barrett, who left the magazine and the D.C. area in 1999.

Since then, she has written a few more times, including a couple of articles for The Wall Street Journal and Elle, but has largely stayed out of the spotlight.

That is, until the incident at The Atlantic.

The Atlantic Story

As part of their November 2020 edition, The Atlantic published the aforementioned piece by Barrett and then later shared it on their website.

However, The Washington Post, an old nemesis of Barrett, quickly seized upon the article. In an October 24 column, media critic Erik Wemple drew attention to the issues of the article.

For one, he criticized The Atlantic for shortening Barrett’s name, which made it difficult for readers, even those that remember her history, to realize who she was. After that, he criticized some of the information in the story. He fact-checked (and refuted) two claims in the story including a serious injury during a fencing tournament and the building of “Olympic-sized hockey rinks”.

That prompted a more thorough fact checking of the article, both by The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

One of the most significant issues involved a mother featured in the story that went by the name Sloane. According to The Atlantic’s retraction, the original article claimed that Sloane had a son and this was something that their fact-checkers had confirmed with her.

However, after attempting to re-confirm that information, Sloane admitted that she did not have a son at all and claimed that she had been asked to lie about that to fact-checkers by Barrett herself. Barrett initially denied this but eventually admitted that she was “complicit” in the falsehood. She further said that, while she did not advise Sloane to mislead The Atlantic, “on some level” she “did know that it was BS.”

Between that and the other factual errors in the article, The Atlantic decided it could no longer back the veracity of the piece. This was especially true since most of the information in the article came from interviews like the one with Sloane.

As a result of all of this, Barrett’s reputation (under both of her names) is now in ruin and The Atlantic is stuck trying to rebuild reader trust after the disastrous feature.

The Culpability of The Atlantic

All of this raises a simple question: How much of this is the fault of The Atlantic?

Initially, it looks like The Atlantic is fairly sympathetic here. They did perform a fact check of the article and they were actively lied to by one of the article’s participants. That would be difficult for any publication to stop.

However, when you dig deeper, things begin to look a great deal worse.

Wemple was able to debunk two of the most outrageous claims in the article on his own. He did this by simply reaching out to experts in the relevant fields and finding out the truth.

But perhaps the worst crime of The Atlantic was the way it handled her byline. Publishing her name as “Ruth S. Barrett” was a clear attempt to hide her history. The magazine says it usually defers to authors on how to provide bylines, but this is not a usual case.

If you wish to give a disgraced reporter a second chance, that is your right as a publisher. However, it has to be clear and transparent. Readers have a right to know that they should be on guard when reading the article. By changing her byline, they attempted to deny readers that right.

But all of this raises a second question: Did Barrett deserve a second chance in the first place?

Despite all of the anger, plagiarism isn’t the journalistic death sentence that is often thought to be. Many journalists have survived multiple ethics scandals, including Benny Johnson, who enjoys steady work even today.

It’s likely that Barrett would have been much the same if it hadn’t been for Stephen Glass. She had racked up multiple plagiarism allegations, was described as a “nightmare to fact check” and seemed to have a genuine disconnect about the seriousness of her work. Yet, despite all of that, she remained employed by The New Republic until 1999 and was ultimately allowed to leave on her terms.

Without Glass, it’s likely that Barrett wouldn’t have needed a second chance.

However, to me, that doesn’t make Barrett any more sympathetic. She has a long history of plagiarism and playing loose with the facts from before The Atlantic article. There are countless hungry, talented and hard-working journalists without her track record that the magazine could have featured instead. Yet, they chose her.

That makes one wonder what Barrett could have brought that others couldn’t. By shortening her name, any name recognition she may have had would be lost. Though she is a talented writer, so are countless others at The Atlantic and elsewhere.

The decision to bring her on what high-risk and low-reward. Even if it had succeeded, it wouldn’t have been a major coup for The Atlantic and the article at issue wasn’t of some major import that demanded publication no matter what.

The Atlantic did indeed screw up. Badly. They are right to regret their decision and I hope this story informs both them and other publications facing similar situations.

Bottom Line

There’s a legitimate argument about when, how and if journalists accused of plagiarism should be allowed to work again. However, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that, if such journalists are accepted back, it needs to be under a microscope.

The Atlantic missed obvious factual errors in the article and put too much faith in a story that could only be verified by anonymous sources. With an article by someone with a history of journalism malpractice, there is more they could have and should have done if they were going to grant her a second chance.

In the end, The Atlantic deserves its lumps here. They took on a known troubled journalist, gave her a second chance, hid who she was through their byline and then didn’t take adequate precautions to verify the story.

Yes, the blame for the misdeed is ultimately Barrett’s and Barrett’s alone. However, she likely will be sliding back into obscurity while The Atlantic will remain and has to carry on.

And that is possibly the cruelest part of this. Barrett simply goes back to the way life was for her while The Atlantic, as well as all of the real reporters that work there, will have to deal with the fallout for years to come.

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