Another Day, Another Mainstream Media Scandal

Back in the late 1990s, The New Republic suffered from serial scandals with writers who made things up, most spectacularly Stephen Glass, but also Ruth Shalit, who was fired from TNR in 1999 after she was discovered to have plagiarized and “reported inaccurately.” Lately Shalit, now married and using her married name “Ruth S. Barrett” as her byline, has been attempting a comeback in journalism. Her latest feature about meritocracy in Ivy League college sports appears currently in The Atlantic.

Never mind the story itself, which is a bore—who really cares about the self-obsessions of rich, liberal, status-conscious Ivy league parents?—it’s the editor’s online note about “problems” with the article that now deserves a read:

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.

There’s more, including this mea culpa from the editors:

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.

Lots to be said here, but why do the mainstream media outlets continue to fall for serial fabricators and corner-cutters like Shalit-Barrett? Why do writers like Shalit-Barrett think they can continue to make stuff up to advance a preferred story line?

Here we should roll back the tape to one of the original major media scandals, the “Jimmy’s World” fiasco at the Washington Post in 1981. The Post‘s young reporter Janet Cooke had filed a story about purported 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy, carefully detailed about his needle track marks and the whole bit. The lede: “Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms. . . The needle slides into the boy’s soft skin like a straw pushed into the center of a freshly baked cake. . .”

Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for the story. But it soon emerged that Cooke made up the whole thing (she’d also lied about her academic background); the Pulitzer was revoked, and Cooke was fired. It was the ultimate in literal fake news long before anyone thought of the term.

Who thought it plausible that there would be an 8-year-old heroin addict? Credulous liberals, of course. It fits their narrative of the world. One of Cooke’s young colleagues at the Post recalled years later in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The truth is, I had my suspicions about the story from the beginning, but I couldn’t bring myself to flat-out ask Janet if Jimmy was real. I’m not sure I wanted to know.”

I’m not sure I wanted to know. Could be the mainstream media’s motto. And the media wonder why no one trusts them any more.

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