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.”
In particular, the magazine said Barrett incorrectly asserted that the story’s main character, who was identified by her middle name (Sloane), had a son in addition to three daughters in an attempt to blur her identity, and gave a misleading and highly exaggerated description of a fencing injury allegedly sustained by the woman’s daughter. The author had described the incident at a 2019 competition as a “massacre,” in which the girl was stabbed in the neck; in the Atlantic’s updated version of the story, the injury is now portrayed as “not severe.”
In the most scathing and self-flagellating part of the note, the Atlantic said it was wrong to have assigned the story to Barrett, who had earned acclaim as a very young rising-star political writer at the New Republic magazine in the 1990s before her career was derailed by the discovery of major errors and instances of plagiarism in her work.
“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,” the magazine wrote. “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.”
The Atlantic said it had used “Ruth S. Barrett” as the author’s byline at her request. (She was known as Ruth Shalit during her roller coaster career in the 1990s.) The updated version of the story now lists her byline as “Ruth Shalit Barrett,” the magazine said, “in the interest of transparency.”
The story began to unravel a week after publication, when Erik Wemple, a media critic for The Washington Post’s editorial page, noted in a blog post that the description of the 2019 incident was “improbable,” quoting a veteran fencing coach who told him, “I’ve never actually seen this happen to anyone.”
Wemple also pointed out the unlikelihood that families in Connecticut had installed “Olympic-size” ice rinks in their backyard, as Barrett claimed, to give their children a training advantage in the competition for athletic slots at elite colleges. In response, the magazine corrected the error and wrote, “Although the private rinks are large and complete with floodlights and generators, they are not Olympic-size.”
The magazine had said Barrett’s piece “went through our usual rigorous editing and fact-checking process” and added a defense of the story, calling it “an excellent story” that was being enjoyed by readers. The 6,500-word story, which also appeared in the Atlantic’s November print issue, was widely shared and quoted on social media for its condemning and gossipy look at the status obsessions of the economic upper crust.
But after Wemple raised more questions about the piece in a Friday afternoon blog post, the magazine acknowledged there was potentially a larger problem. “We are conducting a review of charges related to the accuracy of certain sections of this piece,” a spokesperson told Wemple. “When we complete our review, we will report to our readers fully any information that needs to be corrected.”
Asked on Saturday afternoon about the piece, a spokesperson for the Atlantic said the magazine has no further comment about the piece beyond the editor’s note.
Asked if the magazine would accept future contributions from Barrett, the spokesperson said “of course not.”
In the editor’s note, the Atlantic noted that Barrett had changed her story regarding whether her main character in the story had a son. “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 magazine wrote. “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.’”
The magazine told readers that “Barrett says that the fabricated son is the only detail about which she deceived our fact-checkers and editors” and noted that the article is in the process of being rechecked by the magazine’s fact-checking department. (Barrett has not replied to an email seeking comment.)
In the expanded note attached to the story’s original web page Sunday evening, the editors explained that while they were retracting the story, they would not remove it altogether, providing a link to a PDF of how the story appeared in the print magazine. “Scrubbing the article from the internet would not meet our standards for transparency," the statement said, "and we believe it is important to preserve access to the article for the historical record.”
The article signaled something of a comeback for Barrett, who had published freelance pieces in a variety of national outlets over the past two decades but nothing that generated as much buzz as her early work had. She wrote a profile of novelist Leslie Jamison for New York magazine’s Vulture site in 2018 and a profile about the actor Jamie Dornan for Elle magazine. Those clips had convinced the Atlantic that it could publish her work, the magazine said.
In 1995, while working for the New Republic, Barrett received heavy criticism for a piece she wrote about racial diversity at The Post, which was found to contain many factual errors and was derided as “big lie propaganda” and “racial McCarthyism” by then-Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
Barrett, who was 24 at the time, said her story “was not a poison-pen piece or a hatchet job,” and the New Republic’s executive editor defended Barrett as “energetic, enterprising and hard-working.”
When confronted about instances of inadequate attribution in her work, Barrett blamed it on computer problems. “People fall prey to a reductionist fallacy that the worst truth about you is the most consequential truth,” she said in a 1999 interview. "[The plagiarism] was a truth about me and is a truth about me. But there are a lot of other interesting truths as well.”
At the time, Barrett had left D.C. and taken a job with an advertising agency in New York City. “I am not hustling anymore,” she said. “I am not out there pitching stories. This really is a change. But there is a part of me that is always going to be a journalist. I think I wrote a lot of pieces that were good and fair and true. And I am sure, at some point, I will write again.”
This story originally published 5:17 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, with news of the Atlantic’s extensive correction to the Ruth Shalit Barrett story. It was updated 8:15 Sunday, Nov. 1, with the news of the magazine’s full retraction.