That’s not just any Ruth S. Barrett; it’s Ruth Shalit Barrett — the same Ruth Shalit who left Washington in the late 1990s after laying down a trail of journalistic scandal. A 1992 graduate of Princeton University, Shalit rose quickly to an associate editorship at the New Republic, contributions to the New York Times Magazine and a $45,000-per-year contract with GQ. But with those successes came problems. Shalit was busted in two significant instances of plagiarism, which she blamed on accidental cut-and-paste operations. “It doesn’t matter that it happened inadvertently. That’s an excuse. I’ve flagellated myself and groveled and begged forgiveness,” Shalit said at the time.
On top of the plagiarism charges, Shalit received heavy criticism for a 13,000-word story for the New Republic on race relations at The Post. It was an exhaustive article heavy on criticism from anonymous Post staffers suggesting that the paper’s diversity push compromised hiring standards. The opus was undermined by significant factual errors. One was the allegation that D.C. contractor Roy Littlejohn had “served time" for corruption — though Littlejohn wasn’t even charged with such an offense. The magazine later settled a lawsuit from Littlejohn.
After leaving the magazine under pressure in 1999, Shalit told media writer David Carr, who was then with the Washington City Paper: “I was 23 years old, I was writing New Republic pieces, I was writing cover stories for the New York Times Magazine, I was filing columns for GQ, and at the same time, I was bopping around and being a 23-year-old and buying miniskirts with my GQ money.” Said Shalit: "And yes, I loved it, but guess what? One false move and it all came tumbling down.”
That’s some self-serving punditry.
Upon her departure from D.C., Shalit took a job in advertising in New York.
In 2004, Shalit married Henry Robertson Barrett IV. The byline “Ruth Shalit Barrett” has surfaced in the years since, at Elle and New York Magazine. Leah Finnegan, writing for Gawker, wondered why Elle would accord a byline to a proven plagiarist for the sake of a forgettable profile of actor Jamie Dornan: “My heart is pounding. My legs are pure jelly. I’m a quivering mess. Christian Grey is sitting across from me,” the article begins.
For the most part, those pieces feel like toe-dipping exercises for Ruth S. Barrett — a chance to bang out some clever prose on topics of minimal import. They constitute the beef of the “selected work” tab on the Ruth S. Barrett website, which omits links to her New Republic days. Her bio, however, is a bit more comprehensive: “Ruth S. Barrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, ELLE, New York Magazine, The New Republic, and GQ. She lives in Westport, CT with her husband and two children.” (The Wall Street Journal contributions date to 2003 and 2004.)
The post-Beltway clips skew puffy -- thinky profiles and the like.
The Atlantic story is in another category. It’s a layered and probing look at a subculture in Fairfield County, where Barrett resides. The key source — “a buoyant, chatty, stay-at-home mom from Fairfield County, Connecticut” identified by her middle name, Sloane — narrates the mania: “My daughter is 5 foot 11. That’s not the optimum body for squash. She has the frame for rowing. I’ve always had it in the back of my head. Rowing moves the needle way more.”
The prose is, as ever, readable and plentiful:
Backyards feature batting cages, pitching tunnels, fencing pistes, Olympic-size hockey rinks complete with floodlights and generators. Hotly debated zoning-board topics include building codes for at-home squash courts and storm-drainage plans to mitigate runoff from private ice rinks. Whereas the Hoop Dreamers of the Chicago projects pursued sports as a path out of poverty and hardship, the kids of Fairfield County aren’t gunning for the scholarship money. It’s more about status maintenance, by any means necessary.
In the Slate podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” Stefan Fatsis opined: “The anecdotes are super-crazy. This is the elitest of the elite. This is billionaires who are building squash courts and fencing in their mansions and then hiring, like, the top-ranked squash player in the world and putting him on their staffs in order to try to get these few spots at the Harvards and Yales of the world.” Fatsis concluded, “There’s just a lot of crazy quotes and crazy rich-people behavior and, you know, we are attracted to gawking at that.”
All correct. The Atlantic piece marks a quantum boost in Shalit’s slow-motion comeback. As she predicted in her 1999 interview with Carr (who died in 2015), “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.” The Atlantic byline provides yet more heft for a caveat that often accompanied Shalit stories: that plagiarism offenses don’t spell automatic doom for journalists. The scofflaws explain, they apologize, they do their time and many return to work.
Anyone steeped in this history reads a Ruth S. Barrett story with great caution. That’s what the Erik Wemple Blog did. We slowed down for the part where the Atlantic article discusses some grisly fencing injuries sustained at a national fencing competition in Ohio by Sloane’s 12-year-old daughter. It’s really something:
But a little over a year ago, during the Fourth of July weekend, Sloane began to think that maybe it was time to call it quits. She was crouched in the vestibule of the Bay Club in Redwood City, strategizing on the phone with her husband about a “malicious refereeing” dispute that had victimized her daughter at the California Summer Gold tournament. He had his own problem. In Columbus, Ohio, at the junior-fencing nationals with the couple’s two younger girls and son, he reported that their middle daughter, a 12-year-old saber fencer, had been stabbed in the jugular during her first bout. The wound was right next to the carotid artery, and he was withdrawing her from the tournament and flying home.She’d been hurt before while fencing — on one occasion gashed so deeply in the thigh that blood seeped through her pants — but this was the first time a blade had jabbed her in the throat. It was a Fourth of July massacre.
Sounds horrible — and improbable. “In my career as an athlete and coach, I’ve never actually seen this happen to anyone,” Byron Neslund, a longtime championship-level fencer, wrote in an email to this blog. “Not to say freak accidents aren’t possible, but in fencing they’re very rare.” True: Fencing ranks high in safety among sports, and “major trauma” from stabbings is “exceedingly rare,” according to the London-based Institute of Sport Exercise & Health.
With that in mind, we asked the Atlantic for details about the “Fourth of July massacre.” It declined to comment on the record. USA Fencing, organizer of the tournament, told the Erik Wemple Blog that it doesn’t release injury information without the consent of the athlete or the athlete’s parent/guardian. Attempts to reach Barrett have been unsuccessful.
Another exceptional data point in the Atlantic piece relates to home-brew recreation in affluent Fairfield County: “Backyards feature batting cages, pitching tunnels, fencing pistes, Olympic-size hockey rinks complete with floodlights and generators. Hotly debated zoning-board topics include building codes for at-home squash courts and storm-drainage plans to mitigate runoff from private ice rinks.”
Boldface added to highlight a question: Really?
Okay, but who would really know how many Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks are in Fairfield County? “I would know,” says Ryan Hughes, founder of North American Rink Management, a firm that builds outdoor rinks for well-off county residents. “I know of nobody who’s built an Olympic sheet, not even the hedge-fund guys.” Most of the home rinks in the area, says Hughes, fall shy of even the smaller NHL-standard rink size. (Olympic rinks are about 15 feet wider than NHL versions.)
We know that we’re nitpicking. But when the former Ruth Shalit is writing for your publication, you nail down all Olympic-size claims. After the Erik Wemple Blog informed the Atlantic of Hughes’s claims, the magazine ran a correction stating, in part, that “although the private rinks are large and complete with floodlights and generators, they are not Olympic-size.”
That detail slipped through the magazine’s factual safety net. “This feature went through our usual rigorous editing and fact-checking process. We fact-check every magazine piece extremely thoroughly,” noted the magazine in a statement. It added this defense after some back-and-forth with the Erik Wemple Blog: "This is an excellent story, which is why we published it. It illuminates the extreme lengths some affluent parents are taking to get their kids into elite colleges and reproduce class advantage. Our readers are enjoying it.”
They might have also enjoyed a bit more information on the author.
Read more from Erik Wemple: