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!