The Atlantic on Sunday evening retracted its hole-filled article about niche sports, elite colleges and ambitious parents in Fairfield County, Conn. The move came two nights after the magazine published an editor’s note describing a snafu in which the author of the story, Ruth Shalit Barrett, participated in a scheme to mislead fact-checkers about at least one detail in the story.

“We have decided to retract this article. We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article,” reads the retraction.

The story was noteworthy not only for the remarkable quotes of parents driven by dreams of collegiate status but also for the author herself: Barrett left the New Republic under pressure in 1999 after multiple plagiarism scandals and concerns that she mishandled quotes and story points. She wrote occasional pieces for the Wall Street Journal, Elle and New York Magazine since leaving TNR, but the long-form piece in the Atlantic represented, perhaps, a bona fide comeback.

But no: As the Atlantic acknowledged in its editor’s note, the story contained an embellished account of a 12-year-old girl’s fencing injuries, plus other factual errors; it falsely attributed a son to the main character, “Sloane,” a Fairfield mom who was guiding her daughters through the rigors of competitive fencing, squash and rowing. There were other erroneous claims relating to Sloane as well, according to her lawyer, the magazine said, but the lawyer declined to specify the errors to the Atlantic. The Erik Wemple Blog has listed other extravagant and difficult-to-prove claims, all of which were arrayed to exaggerate the rat-race sports culture in well-off Fairfield County, Conn.

The retraction doesn’t provide an exhaustive review of challenged story points, but rather relies on the logic of the poisoned well: The article’s author betrayed the magazine’s confidence, so how can it recommend the story to readers?

The post-publication crisis has meant a lot of extra work at the Atlantic in the middle of the run-up to the presidential election. As this blog went about examining the story’s claims, it learned that magazine staffers were diving back into the copy and rechecking it. The editor’s note published on Friday night measured nearly 800 words, and reflected a bizarre and complicated review involving the lawyer of the story’s central character and Barrett herself. The retraction caps more than a week of scrambling at the Atlantic.

Now comes a process review. In a note to colleagues, magazine Editor Don Peck declared, “I want to assure you that, in the coming days, we will examine all of the processes involved in the assignment and publication of the article, and work to reform them so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Publications that retract articles face difficult choices. Should they banish those pieces from their sites? Journalism graybeards say such acts run counter to the transparency that a retraction should further, not cloak. So the Atlantic devised an elegant compromise: “We draw a distinction between retraction and removal,” noted the magazine. “We believe that scrubbing the article from the Internet would not meet our standards for transparency, and we believe it is important to preserve access to the article for the historical record. We have decided to take down the online version but to make available a PDF of the article as it appears in our November 2020 issue.”

The Friday note spiraled into an exhaustive discussion of how Sloane and Barrett — who declined to speak on the record to the Erik Wemple Blog — deceived the magazine into believing that the woman had a son. According to Sloane’s attorney, Barrett “had first proposed the invention of a son, and encouraged Sloane to deceive The Atlantic as a way to protect her anonymity.” Confronted by the Atlantic about this claim, Barrett denied them at first but admitted the next day to being “complicit” in “compounding the deception.”

In an interview over the weekend with the New York Times, Barrett said she “got no benefit” from inserting the son into the piece. “It didn’t make the article better,” she told the newspaper. “Even if you want to attribute to me the most malign motives, there was nothing to be gained. It was just a lapse.”

Sure — it was just a lapse concocted to protect the identity of the story’s central character, and in that sense, it most certainly did “make the article better.” However it came about, the scheme didn’t work anyway, because there were other identifying details in the piece that readers used to determine Sloane’s identity. So the whole mess, in the end, resolves itself in a simple lesson about life and journalism: Just tell the truth.

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