Four common threads associated with journalism malfeasance: A look at Ruth Shalit Barrett’s fraudulent story for The Atlantic

There’s a pretty good reason why people constantly scream that the media is full of “fake news” get traction on their arguments:

Two weeks after publishing a long, juicy and instantly viral story about the world of competitive niche sports, and the wealthy parents who push their children to play them, the Atlantic on late Friday appended a nearly 800-word editor’s note informing readers that it was “deceived” by the story’s author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

By Sunday evening, the magazine had gone further, announcing that it had retracted the story altogether. “We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author,” an expanded editor’s note said, “and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.”

This wasn’t the author’s first scrape with journalistic malpractice. In the 1990s, she worked at The New Republic where she was fired for plagiarism and taking liberties with her copy. As she noted for this story, written shortly after her dismissal, she was there alongside fellow journalism pariah Stephen Glass, who fabricated multiple stories and faked large portions of others:

“Steve Glass was boring, a boring fabulist, the Milli Vanilli of journalism. There were all these sorts of pieces written about how he was this brilliant, misunderstood genius who was hemmed in by the literature of fact. I think that’s wrong, that the appeal of his pieces was that they were supposedly full of all this great reporting. If you go back and read these pieces knowing that it was all made up, they don’t seem fun anymore,” she says.

“When people started writing pieces about Steve Glass, it all sort of got thinned out….It was ‘Steve Glass, fabulist’ and ‘Ruth Shalit, plagiarist.’ The rest of who I was and what I had done got dumped. And that was a drag, because if you stand back, there are good pieces with solid reporting, and that are true, by the way. To equate that body of work to the work of another writer whose entire oeuvre turned out to be this tissue of lies, that seems to be a large leap,” she says.

Leaping forward to her current situation, The Atlantic went to cringe-inducingly painful lengths to lay out the sins of the author and the magazine’s role in letting it see the light of day. In an editor’s note that retracted the piece, The Atlantic noted the following problems with the story:

  • The main character was given the name of “Sloane,” Barrett said, to protect the anonymity of this stay-at-home mother with three daughters and a son. It turned out to be the source’s middle name, which made it easy for people to identify her. In addition, the woman didn’t actually have a son.
  • In the deeper dig, “Sloane” explained that Barrett suggested the invention of the fictional son, and then told her to lie about his existence when contacted by The Atlantic’s fact checkers. At first, Barrett denied knowing about this before fessing up later.
  • The wounds that “Sloane’s” daughter sustained during a fencing competition were false or extremely exaggerated. In one case, Barrett described a piercing throat wound that struck the jugular vein and nearly hit the carotid artery as “a Fourth of July massacre.” The wound didn’t even draw blood, as noted by witnesses who posted on social media. A second wound was described as a deep thigh gash, which it was not, the correction notes.
  • A family involved in lacrosse was identified as living in the wrong city in Connecticut.
  • A statement that some families had built Olympic-sized ice rinks in their backyards had to be corrected to merely state that private ice rinks were constructed. (Olympic rinks measure 200 feet by 100 feet, which approaches nearly a half acre of space.)

As these falsehoods and errors began to crop up, the folks at The Atlantic acted like trauma surgeons in a disaster: They kept tying off bleeders and trying to keep the patient alive. The editor’s note lists two dates in which the magazine added corrective information to the story, before making the decision to finally pull it. (A PDF of the article is still available on the magazine’s website.)

Simply put, they didn’t know how deep the rot really was, but they knew the author had purposefully lied to them:

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

We have talked at length about a number of these situations, such as journalist Mike Ward’s use of fabricated “real people” across multiple stories,

Historically, there is always the “Jimmy” story that Janet Cooke wrote, in which she told the tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict who turned out to be a fabrication. There is Jayson Blair, who fabricated sources, lied about information he supposedly got from sources and plagiarized the work of other journalists. The New York Times ran a correction of around 7,000 words, in an attempt to fix all of the problems Blair caused and restore some of the paper’s credibility.

Heck, Barrett’s former colleague at The New Republic, Stephen Glass, fabricated content to the point he was portrayed by Darth Vader in a movie.

If you’re looking for a lesson here, the “no duh” one would be not to do this kind of stupid crap, as it is likely to lead to your demise as a journalist while cratering the credibility of every media outlet you ever touched.

If you’re looking for a more oblique lesson, it’s that journalists (and journalism educators, for that matter) are trained to be skeptical pit bulls. We dig into stuff and if we find out you lied, we will burn you so badly you will wish you had died as a child. The Barrett piece started to lose air once outside publications, like Erik Wemple’s blog, began picking at it.

Beyond those two things, consider a few basic observations I’ve come up with about the Barrett situation and some of the previous cheating scandals:

It’s rarely a one-time thing: In the movie version of “Shattered Glass,” New Republic editor Chuck Lane is faced with one piece of copy that he knows is false. The whole story of Ian Restil, a teenage computer hacker, is on the radar of Forbes Digital Tool and reporter Adam Pennenberg. Pennenberg has poked enough holes into this thing to make Lane suspicious and his interactions with Glass confirm it.

The scene that sticks out to me is when Lane finally suspends Glass and is walking past the wall of past issues of TNR. He pauses and you can almost hear the gerbil in his brain hopping onto the treadmill.

He pulls down each issue, flips to the Glass piece in it and starts to read. One by one, he hits something that just doesn’t jibe with reality. He suddenly figures out that this guy has been doing this forever. In the end, 27 of the 41 stories Glass wrote were either partially or entirely fabricated, the movie notes in its epilogue.

This tracks with what you see in the Blair story, where he had been making stuff up and stealing from people for years. His college newspaper, The Diamondback, had issues with him and a retrospective on his tenure at the paper noted people at the time were concerned with his content.

In Barrett’s case, the problems existed decades apart, but they fit this mold.

It’s usually for unimportant crap: My buddy Fred Vultee, a long-time copy editor and now professor at Wayne State University, used to say that you can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Atlantic Ocean. His point was that the big stories aren’t the only places where disasters occur, but we can screw up just as badly in some of the tiny bits of copy we write as a matter of course.

I find this analogy is pretty applicable here as well, because in most of the cases involving plagiarism or fabrication didn’t do great and mighty things in a journalism sense. In most cases, these fabrications involved some really stupid and tiny things, especially compared to the risk of damage associated with them.

Mike Ward’s actions fit this to a T. He used official sources and their real quotes for the meat and potatoes of his pieces. However, he made up “regular people” and their thoughts out of whole cloth to provide that “spice” in the story. As I mentioned at the time, I get that it’s not a lot of fun to go find those “salt-of-the-earth, real people” at the Waffle House and ask them what they think of a pandemic or something. However, it’s part of the job and if you can’t do it, the very least you should do is avoid faking it.

Glass did “color” pieces, something that’s pretty clear if you review his list of articles. He said he claimed to be a biting expert after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield and he got a radio station to put him on a talk show where he took calls for almost an hour. He said he spent time hanging out with drunk and stoned young Republican turks at the CPAC convention, who sought a “real heifer” of a girl to sexually assault. (“Bad acne would be a plus,” his source was quoted as saying.) He claimed to spend time with bond traders who had to pee in specially made urinals to keep them trading instead of heading to the bathroom. On and on these tales went, each more fantastical than the previous one.

None of it was true, but even more, none of it was necessary. It wasn’t like he was Gary Webb, tracking allegations of a CIA-fueled crack epidemic. He wasn’t trying to get information on the Son of Sam by posing as a bereavement counselor and interviewing a victim’s family. If there had been a kid named Ian Restil who hacked a company named Jukt Micronics, would it have been crucial for everyone to know it? Not really.

A rare exception to this was Blair’s work on the D.C. Sniper case, where he wrote various false claims, including an allegation that authorities found a grape stem at the scene of one of the attacks with shooter Lee Boyd Malvo’s DNA on it.

Overall, however cost-benefit analysis these people took seemed to be all out of whack when it came to what they were doing and what would be added to the sum of human knowledge. What it seemed to do, based on what they’ve said over the years, is fed their egos in some prurient way, which they put above their responsibility to their readers.

Fellow journalists generally have a “Spidey sense” about these folks before the situation blows up:  There are moments in which people around the fraudulent journalists get a “feeling” that something isn’t right. In Blair’s case, there were warning signals all over hell and creation. A group of alumni from The Diamondback sent a letter to the J-school at Maryland after things blew up, outlining all the red flags they saw years earlier. Journalist Seth Mnookin’s book, “Hard News,” outlines the various editors at the New York Times who had huge concerns with Blair before he started “breaking” sniper stories.

The New Republic got complaints about Glass and his stories, noting errors or flat-out falsehoods. As he continued to deepen his fraud, he told a “60 Minutes” interviewer that he got fewer complaints because he was telling entirely fictional stories and that fake people don’t phone the boss.

In Barrett’s case, The Atlantic knew full well that she had a shady past, but the folks who hired her for this piece kind of squinted their way past this, noting her indiscretions were decades earlier and that people can change. Instead, they saw her kick up her malfeasance a notch from plagiarism to flat-out fraud.

Listening to that internal voice that says, “Something’s not right here…” isn’t easy for a number of reasons. First, it’s tough for a lot of journalists to imagine that one of our own would do something like this. It’s antithetical to who we are and what our profession espouses, so thinking this could happen is really hard to swallow.

Second, we are used to hearing crap like this from all sorts of people. Sources who said something might end up getting in trouble once the comment is published, so they call up and claim they never said it. When other reporters complain about the “star” reporter, it can come across like sour grapes. Thus, grousing that this guy or that gal is cutting corners or not fact checking or being a dink can be easily dismissed.

Finally, we can talk ourselves out of this “feeling” pretty easily for a number of reasons. In some cases, it’s because everyone is moving at warp speed covering the news, so we just figure it was a glitch or a “one-off” moment. In other cases, we realize that we’re about to accuse someone of something pretty egregious, so we better be damned sure. In most of these cases, these journalists exploited those weaknesses and continue to do their worst.

The dirt never washes off: Not every faker becomes a household name, but those who have done it and gotten caught tend to find their actions essentially ruin their lives. Outside of a couple interviews on a TV talk show and Mike Sager’s piece in CJR, Cooke has been actively out of communication for decades. Pieces often talk ABOUT her, but rarely, if ever, does anyone manage to talk with her. What could have been an incredible journalism career turned to dust.

Glass spent years going through law school, graduating in 2000 from Georgetown, but is unable to practice law, due to his problems as a journalist. He was able to get work with multiple law firms, but he is not an attorney.

Blair’s career was like a bottle rocket, streaking up through the sky quickly and exploding just as suddenly. In speaking with students at Maryland in 2016, he essentially admitted he harmed himself and the profession to the degree he knows he’d never be able to work in the field again.

Barrett got what all three of those folks, and many others, I would imagine, desperately want: A second chance. She took it and blew it. The “how” is easy to understand.

The “why?” Not so much.


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