The Atlantic’s Most Peculiar Lawsuit

Jeffrey Goldberg
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Eriq Gardner
March 14, 2022

Media observers of a certain vintage will recall the saga of Ruth Shalit, a rising star political reporter at The New Republic who left the profession in 1999 following lingering attention on two high-profile accusations of plagiarism. Shalit was, by her own account, a “dippy 23-year-old” when she folded other writers’ words and phrases into her typewritten notes, in two separate incidents. She took a leave of absence, and, presumably chastened, returned, toiling away for years under the magazine’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier. Then the Stephen Glass fabrication scandal exploded, and her continued presence at the publication became, ahem, inconvenient. She kept popping up in stories about Glass, even if the controversies were materially different and years apart. Shalit, then 28, ditched journalism for an advertising agency.

Of course, the media spotlight never really left Shalit, who, despite telling The New York Times in 1999 that she was switching careers because she realized her youthful sins “would be a data point about me as long as I stayed in journalism,” didn’t stay in the wilderness for long. Soon, she was writing again for Salon, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Elle, and other publications. And so the media fascination with Ruth Shalit Barrett (she took a new surname upon marriage) never went away, either. Every so often, her byline would prompt another columnist to spit out something akin to “Wait, she’s still writing?!”

All of which brings us to the remarkable libel lawsuit that Barrett has launched against Laurene Powell JobsThe Atlantic, stemming from a 2020 story she wrote for the magazine. The mesmerizing article, about Ivy League-obsessed parents pushing their children into niche sports, might have aided Barrett’s slow climb back to star status within the industry, had a Washington Post media critic not responded with a piece entitled, “Ruth Shalit just wrote for The Atlantic. Would readers know it from the byline?” That piece from media critic Erik Wemple was accompanied by an old grainy screen capture of Shalit on C-SPAN along with what he describes as some “nitpicking” of her story: A 12-year-old stabbed in the jugular during a fencing tournament? Hmm, really? The backyards of wealthy parents in Connecticut include Olympic-sized hockey rinks? C’mon!

Wemple later followed up with a second look at “The Atlantic’s troubled niche-sports story.” He poked at details in the feature. That 12-year-old who was “stabbed in the jugular” during a fencing tournament? A referee at the tournament remembers no blood. (Barrett maintains she has records to show it’s how she described.) How about this kid’s parent—someone who Barrett called “Sloane”? Public record searches showed no “Sloane.” Was it a pseudonym? And where’s Sloane’s supposed son? A Facebook page for the family shows all girls. And so forth.

These inconsistencies were pretty inconsequential to the major thrust of the piece, and when Barrett would later respond via a Medium post, she would confess to minor errors and one major lapse. “Most egregiously, to protect the anonymity of a source I called ‘Sloane,’ I signed off on inserting a reference to a person who doesn’t exist,” she wrote, referring to a son who makes no appearance in the story but for the description of the family. Lashing out at what she perceived as “systematic, intense, and occasionally hairsplitting scrutiny of my work,” Barrett added, “My story is true and I stand by it.”

The Atlantic, however, did not. “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,” states an Editor’s Note now affixed to the top of the online version, spelling out her maiden name. “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.”

The Editor’s Note

The Editor’s Note goes on for several hundred more words—and the retraction is now the focus of a lawsuit from Barrett that focuses on a writer’s notorious past and journalistic conventions. This unusual legal fight certainly entails a close reading of the niche-sports story, but then again, it isn’t as much about what’s in the story as who and what is behind it. It’s a fascinating case about literal truths and figurative misrepresentation. It’s also a legal showdown that addresses narrative framing.

Here’s what Barrett’s complaint against The Atlantic Monthly Group, filed in D.C. federal court on Jan. 7, has to say about her niche-sports story:

“Although the Editor’s Note accuses Ms. Barrett of engaging in the cardinal journalistic sin of ‘fabrication,’ the only falsehood that The Atlantic ever uncovered in the Article (even after it conducted a post hoc investigation) was the inclusion of a minor masking detail intended to shield the identity of a confidential source, identified in the Article and herein as Sloane. Ms. Barrett had added a single reference to a fourth child (‘and son’) at the request of Sloane and her husband, who were concerned that The Atlantic’s vivid depiction of her as a Fairfield County mom with advanced public-health degrees, a trampoline in her backyard, and three daughters who play squash and fence on a national level was tantamount to identifying her by name… This trivially erroneous detail had no material bearing on the substance of the Article, and such masking is not unusual when necessary to protect individuals—especially minor children—from being identifiable in an article.”

As for Barrett’s specific legal claims, her complaint (read here) alleges defamation from the way the Editor’s Note described how she left The New Republic in 1999 “after” plagiarism and inaccurate reporting were discovered. In fact, she stresses, her infractions occurred between 1994-1995. Those journalism lapses allegedly didn’t precipitate any forced exit. Furthemore, her lawsuit alleges defamation from the way the Editor’s Note framed the appearance of the byline (“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.”). Barrett says The Atlantic chose “Ruth Barrett,” she merely suggested using the middle initial to conform to the name she’s used in other publications, and so the publication is falsely suggesting she’s hiding her history by insisting on a misleading byline. Last and not least, her lawsuit alleges defamation from what the Editor’s Note had to say about her use of “Sloane” and invention of a son (“We have established that Barrett deceived The Atlantic and its readers…”). Again, Barrett insists that masking a source isn’t extraordinary and that the publication was overall aware of the need to protect this person’s identity.

The lawsuit asserts other exotic claims (breach of contractual duty of good faith and fair dealing, tortious interference, etc.) arising from how The Atlantic basically threw her under the bus after Wemple’s columns were published, and impeded her ability to sell adaptation rights to a Hollywood production company.

Now comes a motion to dismiss from The Atlantic. (Read here in full.) Filed on March 9, the media company posits, “Barrett’s Complaint is extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which is that she admits the central facts underlying the retraction, including that she intentionally falsified a fact in her article and lied to The Atlantic’s editors about it. Prior to suit, Barrett publicly acknowledged to the New York Times that she made a ‘serious error’ and posted online that it was ‘egregious.’”

The defendant adds that Barrett’s allegations really just add up to the “argument that The Atlantic overreacted to her admitted wrongdoing” and that they don’t support valid legal claims. Is that so? Does the lawsuit really just amount to a failure by Barrett to control the narrative about her endeavors? 

“Deceptions and Errors”

This past weekend, I spoke with Hassan Zavareei, Barrett’s attorney, who tried to convince me that by dredging up her past and including innuendo about “deceptions and errors,” the publication had wronged her by falsely presenting her as untrustworthy, a serial fabricator.

The question in court, however, will be whether The Atlantic has legally wronged Barrett—that is, made untrue statements about her with actual malice; or maybe violated contractual duties. Her problem appears to be that there’s nothing in the Editor’s Note that seems blatantly untrue on its face. Yes, there is a doctrine in libel law called “defamation by implication,” concerning statements that carry the insinuation of falsity, and perhaps she’ll steer her case towards this more slippery field of play, but right now, I get the sense she’s primarily seeking remedy over the unfairness of it all. 

Barrett, after all, was a terrifically talented young writer, who possessed, as the late David Carr once wrote, “a devastating eye for the cravenness of Clinton-era Washington.” As a young reporter myself, I too was transfixed by Shalit’s flair for delivering insights into the likes of Bob Dole, Carol Mosely-Braun, and Ron Klain or getting under the skin of those in the establishment by tackling racial dynamics at The Washington Post (a highly controversial cover story that had reporters at the time focused on undercutting the accuracy of her work). She had an incredible aptitude for delivering poison darts (especially to those on the left of the political sphere) wrapped in elegant prose. When she announced she was exiting journalism, it triggered plenty of schadenfreude in certain quarters, and, looking back, I wonder how much of the sneering was due to her age and gender in a then decidedly male industry.

Does Barrett at least have a case of being mistreated, even if this situation ends up not being legally actionable? That’s tougher for me to answer, as it depends on perspective, although it does feel as though some are acting with just a hazy notion of what actually happened in the 1990s and now treating her akin to an alcoholic who shouldn’t get within 1,000 feet of any bar. Of course, the writer herself had the foresight to realize that she’d never really be able to launder the stink of being labeled a plagiarist, even if she made her biggest mistakes at a very young age. Isn’t that why she was inclined to leave journalism in the first place?