Ruth Shalit Barrett Sues The Atlantic for $1 Million Over Retraction

On Friday of last week, Rush Shalit Barrett filed a lawsuit against The Atlantic, seeking some $1 million in damages after, she claims, a retraction of an article she wrote “destroyed her reputation and career.”

The lawsuit comes more than a year after an article Barrett published in The Atlantic came under fire for alleged fabrications and factual errors. It resulted in a retraction and a stern editor’s note decrying the integrity of the piece and saying that they had lost confidence in the work.

However, now Barrett is fighting back. Her lawsuit targets both The Atlantic and Don Peck, the publication’s former print magazine editor and current editor-at-large. She claims that the way the dispute was handled amounted to “character assassination” and that it destroyed her reputation.

The Atlantic, for their part, have said they stand by their retraction and said that they are confident they will prevail.

But this raises the question: What is going on here?

To understand that, we first have to briefly recap the history here and examine what lessons can be learned from it.

A Brief History of Ruth Shalit Barrett

Barrett, formerly Ruth Shalit, initially rose to popularity in the 1990s. After her graduation from Princeton University in 1992, she earned a reputation as a journalist that could write compelling and entertaining stories for readers.

However, almost from the beginning, she was beset by controversy. According to a 1999 report by Washington City Paper, she first found herself dealing with accusations of plagiarism, something she blamed on copy and paste errors.

However, it was in 1995, when writing for New Republic, that questions about her ethics became public. In an article about affirmative action policies at the Washington Post, she made several factual errors, including one that resulted in the publication being sued for defamation.

She held on to her job there until 1999, when the Stephen Glass scandal rocked the publication. Glass, a repeated fabulist, was fired for his ethical lapses and that placed pressure on Barrett, who left the magazine later that year.

For the next 20 years, Barrett did very little in the field of journalism, but The Atlantic invited her to publish a lengthy article in the November 2020 edition of the publication. That article, which was about the lengths wealthy parents will go to help their children excel in niche sports, was published under the byline of “Ruth S. Barrett” in a clear attempt to hide her more famous name.

(Note: In the lawsuit, Barrett claims that she never picked her byline and, in fact, asked for the “S” to be added as it was a name she had written under prior. She claims The Atlantic attempted to use the byline “Ruth Barrett” instead.)

However, that article proved to be deeply problematic too. The problems were first noted by Erik Weple, the chief media critic at The Washington Post. He identified several factual errors in the article and brought them to light. Eventually, The Atlantic performed its own investigation and made the decision to retract the article.

According to the editor’s note that accompanied the retraction, various elements of the story were found to be false. Barrett, for her part, claims that the errors were to make anonymous sources less identifiable and that editors at The Atlantic caused at least some of the errors themselves .

Either way, The Atlantic retracted the article and published a lengthy editor’s note explaining that they had lost confidence in the veracity of the piece and felt the need to pull it. According to Barrett, that retraction was excessive and was made out of fear and deference to The Washington Post more than proper journalism protocol.

That, in turn, brings us to the lawsuit itself.

Understanding the Lawsuit

At 106 pages, the complaint filed by Barrett is a mammoth one. However, the argument it makes can be summarized fairly easily.

According to Barrett, the article she published was accurate and met all standards of journalism ethics. Any errors in it were either extremely minor or were made deliberately to protect a confidential source. She further claims that, by publicly correcting those masking errors, The Atlantic and The Washington Post breached the confidentiality of her source.

Furthermore, she claims that many of the errors were created by The Atlantic, including a different masking error and changing at least one quote.

She further claims that any issues with the article could have and should have been handled with minor neutral corrections, not a scathing 800-word editor’s note that dragged her past transgressions up in addition to misrepresenting her latest work. She also objects to a memo that was sent to staff at The Atlantic about the story that she claims further defamed her.

Because of that, she’s suing for a variety of causes including defamation, breach of contract and tortious interference.

However, the lawsuit, to my mind, leaves a great deal of questions unanswered. While it does share some additional information and details about what happened with the story, it leaves a large number of blanks unfilled.

Unanswered Questions

In her lawsuit, Barrett focuses very heavily on the non-existent son of one of her confidential sources named Sloane. She says it was a deliberate inaccuracy to mask that person’s identity, but it was far from the only error in the article.

For example, two errors that initially drew attention to the piece involved a reported injury that saw a student “stabbed in the jugular” during a fencing tournament and that some families were allegedly building “Olympic-sized hockey rinks”.

Barrett really doesn’t address those errors in the lawsuit, pointing out instead that the statement about the neck injury was removed from the revised editor’s note and blamed The Atlantic’s own fact checking team for failing to catch the error about rink size.

Both of these facts were significant to the story and turned out to be false.

While Barrett may reasonably argue that The Atlantic was heavy-handed with its response to the issues. There may also be arguments that many of the issues that happened were caused by The Atlantic and its editors. However, there is no denying that there were serious issues with the article, especially considering that two of the most shocking facts in the piece turned out to be incorrect.

In short, while Barrett’s lawsuit does contain a great deal of new information (or at least allegations), it really doesn’t get to the core of why the article was pulled, nor does it really address why the story became as large as it did.

Bottom Line

If I were to ask Barrett a question, it would be this, “Knowing your reputation and your history (whether you feel it is earned or unearned), why did you opt to deliberately post misinformation in this article?” Even if it is to protect a confidential source, you have to know that your work will be under much higher scrutiny and even minor, well-intentioned errors could blow up.

Throughout the lawsuit, Barrett compares herself to other reporters at The Atlantic that she claims got better treatment than her for similar or worse issues. However, those comparisons fall apart when you realize that her past puts her in a very different position.

While she understandably doesn’t like to be judged by her past, it is that past that is her claim to fame and what she is best known for. Fairly or unfairly, she will always be judged and treated in a different light because of it.

Her situation will always be unique and there is not much point in pretending otherwise.

In the end, this story continues to be a cautionary tale for publications considering giving reporters a second chance after a scandal. There are many risks that come with that, and now we can add being sued to that list.