Ruth Shalit Barrett — the freelance writer who was very publicly outed for plagiarism in the 1990s — has sued The Atlantic and its former print editor, Don Peck, for $1 million in damages over an article she wrote last year about niche high school sports, that was retracted after inquiries revealed several inaccuracies.
The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 7 in D.C. federal court, concerns a piece titled “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents,” which ran in The Atlantic over the fall of 2020. The piece detailed how affluent parents weaponize sports like fencing to get their kids into Ivy League schools; in one anecdote, Shalit Barrett focused on a woman identified only as “Sloane,” who had raised her three daughters and son in Connecticut, and seen the high school fencing world firsthand. (Somewhat curiously, the article appeared under the byline “Ruth S. Barrett,” though the writer had typically worked under her maiden name, Ruth Shalit, or full married name, Ruth Shalit Barrett, for the majority of her 27-year career.)
The lawsuit claims The Atlantic “unlawfully smeared” Shalit Barrett and held her to a higher editorial standard. For example, she was accused of inventing a son for one of her subjects; as a counterpoint, the complaint notes that “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein described Deep Throat as a ‘White House source,’ even though Deep Throat was actually Mark W. Felt, an FBI employee.”
Shortly after the piece ran, Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote an opinion piece titled: “Ruth Shalit just wrote for the Atlantic. Would readers know it from the byline?” Wemple detailed Shalit’s track record from the ‘90s — including the cut-and-paste job that led to her departure from The New Republic, and the factual inaccuracies in an investigation about race relations at The Post. Among other things, she claimed a man had served a prison sentence for corruption; he had never been indicted.
Wemple noted that The Atlantic piece included at least one small error — Shalit had described backyard hockey rinks as “Olympic-sized,” when they were smaller — and an instance of possible overstatement, calling a fencing injury a “massacre.” The piece then triggered an inquiry within The Atlantic, which found a more significant oversight: Sloane didn’t have a son. This prompted a rare retraction; the article has been replaced by an editor’s note outlining the errors that states: “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.” (The article can still be accessed via PDF.)
Shalit’s complaint sketches her side of the story — namely, that she had invented the son in collaboration with Sloane, as a means to anonymize her. This, she claimed, was standard; she pointed to an instance elsewhere in the piece, where an Atlantic editor had altered a quote to obscure the subject. (Notably, this is also considered an editorial misstep). Perhaps most persuasively, she points out that her new byline — the thing that initially caught Wemple’s attention — had been partially determined by the Atlantic’s editors. Per the complaint:
In fact, contemporaneous correspondence shows that Ms. Barrett did not choose her own byline for the Article; rather, a byline (“Ruth Barrett”) was chosen for her. Ms. Barrette first saw this byline on September 10, 2020, when she received galley proofs of the Article. Ms. Barrett had never previously published under the byline “Ruth Barrett” and felt uneasy about it. She emailed her editor the next day to request that her byline be changed to “Ruth S. Barrett” — a byline she has used in the past writing for reputable national publications, without controversy and without allegations of misuse.
It’s unclear what Shalitt Barrett’s chances are with the case. This website is not a judge or jury. But she makes at least one good point, if mainly in a broader sense: “At its core, The Atlantic’s conduct was suffused with bad faith.”