The Atlantic’s widely read story on niche sports and ambitious parents took a strange turn late Friday night, when the publication appended a nearly 800-word editor’s note claiming that its fact checkers had been deceived — including by the author of the piece. According to the note, Ruth Shalit Barrett — the former New Republic writer who left journalism in 1999 after scandals over plagiarism and claims that she embellished quotes and exaggerated details — participated in a scheme to mislead the magazine about at least one detail relating to the story’s central character.

That character is identified as “Sloane,” a Fairfield County, Conn., mother guiding her daughters through youth sports — fencing, squash and rowing — in an effort to get them into elite colleges. Details about Sloane have since come under question, as the note explains:

The original version of this article stated that Sloane has a son. Before publication, Sloane confirmed this detail to be true to The Atlantic’s fact-checking department. After publication, when a Washington Post media critic asked us about the accuracy of portions of the article, our fact-checking department reached out to Sloane to recheck certain details. Through her attorney, Sloane informed us that she does not, in fact, have a son. We have independently corroborated that Sloane does not have a son, and we have corrected the story to remove the reference to her having a son.
In explaining Sloane’s reasoning for telling our fact-checker she had a son, Sloane’s attorney told The Atlantic that she wanted to make herself less readily identifiable. Her attorney also said that according to Sloane, Barrett had first proposed the invention of a son, and encouraged Sloane to deceive The Atlantic as a way to protect her anonymity.

At that point, the note takes on the feel of an investigative piece. We learn that Barrett initially denied the allegations, insisting that Sloane had told her about her son. Pressed further, Barrett changed her story: “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 story, complete with its exaggerations and falsehoods, landed earlier this month and stirred angry commentary from many of the communities it purported to cover: fencing enthusiasts, squash players around the world and the small world of affluent sports families along the Gold Coast of Connecticut. Many of these folks searched for clues and determined for themselves the identity of “Sloane” and her family. Numerous attempts by this blog to contact “Sloane” have failed to secure a reply.

One passage from the editor’s note expresses just how poisonous the situation has become:

Sloane’s attorney claimed that there are several other errors about Sloane in the article but declined to provide The Atlantic with examples. Barrett says that the fabricated son is the only detail about which she deceived our fact-checkers and editors. Our fact-checking department is continuing to thoroughly recheck the article.

As noted by this blog on Friday, Barrett’s story is laden with factual problems and misleading passages. They relate to two fencing injuries allegedly sustained by Sloane’s 12-year-old daughter; Sloane and her activities as described in the story; and various aspects of college admissions and sports recruitment. All of them tilt in a conveniently unitary direction, sensationalizing the lengths to which well-to-do parents on Connecticut’s Gold Coast go to shoehorn their kids into Harvard or Duke. Attempts to reach Barrett for comment have been unsuccessful.

The Atlantic has embarked on the path to correction. Its editor’s note makes clear that it has adjusted the wording of those fencing injuries; eliminated the reference to Sloane’s son; corrected the hometown of a lacrosse family; and noted a previous correction to a claim that Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks are spread around Fairfield County.

What’s more, the Atlantic has committed itself to continue “rechecking” the story. That is a commendable endeavor, though its execution is now rather complicated. As it has rummaged through the story’s claims, the Atlantic has found credibility problems with its author as well as its central subject. All representations in the story that rely on those two people, accordingly, take on a factual taint — and that’s the whole story, of course. Anything not provable, at this point, must be presumed false.

Should the Atlantic wish to stand by certain portions of the story, it will need to throw a lot of resources behind making sure those portions are bulletproof. A better approach might be an outright retraction.

The Atlantic has admitted that the byline used in the article was short on relevant information about the author. “Originally, we referred to her as Ruth S. Barrett. When writing recently for other magazines, Barrett was identified by her full name, Ruth Shalit Barrett. (Barrett is her married name.)” Barrett requested that the Atlantic use “Ruth S. Barrett," according to the editor’s note. But it acknowledges that the magazine "should have included the name that she used as her byline in the 1990s, when the plagiarism incidents occurred.”

The admission goes further: that the decision to let Barrett write for the magazine was itself a mistake. News organizations too rarely exhibit this sort of self-criticism, even when their missteps are plain to see. The magazine has followed a colossal lapse in judgment with an admirable exercise in accountability:

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. 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.

Indeed, an instance of plagiarism should not necessarily be a professional death sentence. But that’s not this situation. The extent of Barrett’s previous misconduct combined with the subject matter of the piece, which relied on anonymous sources who could well be her neighbors, made the decision to grant her another chance particularly foolhardy.

Now for the implications beyond the Atlantic: Will other journalists seeking a second chance in journalism get a shot after this embarrassment? That likelihood is now dimmer. The episode suggests that there’s a reason some journalists rack up notorious records as serial plagiarists and fabricators. It’s not because of youthful indiscretion or the perils of cut-and-paste. It’s often because that’s who they are.

As the magazine itself noted, it’s been two decades since Barrett — then Shalit — left Washington for an advertising job in New York. Over those years, she’d written a few pieces in Elle and New York magazine, though nothing as complex as the niche-sports story. There was plenty of time, in other words, to rue the mistakes of her distant past — and make sure they were not repeated.

Back in 1999, James Warren, then Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, told the late David Carr, then of the Washington City Paper: “Even as someone who believes in redemption, I think she stands as a warning sign to the perils and toxic mix of rapacious ambition, inexperience, and dishonesty. She got caught several times, fabricated the goofiest of explanations, but exhibited not a tad of contrition. She surely leaves town with some people wondering whether she will strike again.”

Now we know.

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