Following the retraction, the Atlantic conducted a four-week investigation of how the mishap unfolded. “We do not comment on specific employment or personnel matters,” the Atlantic said in a statement responding to an inquiry from the Erik Wemple Blog after Abraham disappeared from the Atlantic masthead. “We deeply regret the publication of the article on niche sports. After a thorough review, we believe the gravest errors occurred in the author-selection and vetting process. We are implementing reforms to address flaws in our systems.”
The Atlantic bailed on the story after receiving inquiries about certain shaky representations it made and determining that Barrett was “complicit” in disguising the identity of the story’s central character. “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 move was particularly noteworthy in light of Barrett’s past: In the 1990s, she wrote for the New Republic and other magazines under the byline of Ruth Shalit and kicked up scandals for plagiarizing the work of others and for writing an error-riddled story on race relations at The Post — a story that was blasted by a Post journalist at the time as the “most racist piece of so-called journalism I have read in modern times."
“My story is true and I stand by it,” wrote Barrett in a Nov. 23 Medium essay. Abraham declined an interview request from the Erik Wemple Blog.
In a Dec. 18 all-staff meeting, Atlantic Chief Operating Officer Aretae Wyler presented the findings of the internal investigation. According to sources who heard the presentation, Wyler used no names and only titles in discussing the management lapses in editing “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports.” Here are the key points, according to magazine sources:
*Abraham vouched for Barrett based on her experience with her work. According to Wyler’s report, Abraham had worked with Barrett on multiple features at Elle and one at New York magazine. The joint projects over the years, according to sources, had turned Abraham into an advocate for Barrett’s work.
*In 2019, there was talk at the magazine about perhaps publishing something by Ruth Shalit. Editors were inconclusive on the matter, deciding that they’d have to evaluate a pitch and see a draft. When the niche-sports story came to the magazine in 2020, however, a communications breakdown occurred. The story was known internally as the “Barrett piece,” according to sources. Some staffers, including Abraham, knew that the “Barrett piece” was written by Ruth Shalit Barrett. Other top editors, including Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, did not, according to sources at the magazine. They found out later, of course.
The Atlantic editor’s note omits reference to any cleavage among top editors: “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,” reads the note. “We took into consideration the argument that Barrett deserved a second chance to write feature stories such as this one.”
*That editor’s note also says, "In the interest of transparency, we should have included the name that she used as her byline in the 1990s, when the plagiarism incidents occurred.” When pressed as part of Wyler’s investigation, Abraham said Barrett was hoping that Google searches would no longer surface prominent reports on her pockmarked journalistic history.
Asked about her byline, Barrett responded that the initial page proofs for her story carried the byline “Ruth Barrett,” and she requested the insertion of her middle initial — the “full scope” of her communications on the matter, she writes in an email. “Over the last two decades, I’ve published under the bylines Ruth Shalit Barrett and Ruth S. Barrett. My most recent feature piece for Elle appeared under the byline Ruth S. Barrett. The landing page of my personal website links to articles published under both bylines as well as articles published under my maiden name, Ruth Shalit. I have never made any attempt to whitewash or cover up my past. The suggestion that I lobbied editors to alter my byline in an effort to deceive readers and evade Google search results — or that any editor at The Atlantic would assent to such a plan — is false and absurd.”
*An Atlantic staffer at the meeting raised concerns about the racial implications of this passage in Barrett’s piece, describing a mostly White, wealthy county in Connecticut:
Thirty years later, in a twist worthy of a Jordan Peele movie, Fairfield County has come to resemble Compton in the monomaniacal focus on sports. “There’s no more school,” a parent from the town of Darien told me flatly.
The staffer pointed to a connection between that language and the mentality suffusing the author’s long-ago investigation of The Post. Relevant editors appeared to have been aware of Barrett’s plagiarism incidents but not so much about the imbroglio over her Post story, according to a staffer at the meeting.
The internal report on the Atlantic’s journalistic crisis notes that the pandemic limited communications among editors. If only they’d been able to have hallway chats, perhaps they would have headed off an embarrassment. The lesson for homebound editors is stark: Over-email; over-phone; over-text.
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