Ruth Shalit Barrett wrote a feature for the Atlantic’s November 2020 issue on college-admissions-crazed parents — “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports.” It clocked in at nearly 7,000 words.

Concerned about the story’s reliability, the Atlantic retracted it. Now Barrett is suing over the retraction with a complaint that measures around 25,000 words. It appears that Barrett wants the public to know more about the story’s collapse.

And the question is: Why?

The complaint, filed this month in the U.S. District Court in D.C., takes issue with how the Atlantic characterized Barrett’s work on the story, as well as how it abridged her scandal-scarred past in Washington journalism (when her name was Ruth Shalit). Among the targets of the complaint is the Atlantic’s Nov. 1, 2020, editor’s note announcing the retraction: “After The Atlantic published this article, new information emerged that raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.” Defendants include the Atlantic Monthly Group and Donald Peck, the top editor of the print magazine at the time; it alleges defamation and false-light invasion of privacy, among other counts.

The problem with this litigation is that the narrative’s admissions sting the plaintiff more than the allegations puncture the defendant. The venerable magazine, argues the suit, “unlawfully smeared Ms. Barrett for acting in accordance with the law and ethical precepts of the profession of journalism.” The Atlantic issued this statement: “We stand by our full retraction and editor’s note from November 2020. We completely reject the allegations and believe the suit is meritless, will be filing a motion to dismiss, and are confident we will ultimately prevail.”

“The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports” hinges on a Fairfield County, Conn., mother who is identified by what the story says is her middle name, Sloane. She epitomizes the parent tyrannized by the lessons and practices and tournaments, yet compounds it all with Ivy League expectations. “She needs at least a 5.0 rating, or she’s going to Ohio State,” Sloane says of a daughter in one of her many feature-quality sound bites.

The Atlantic agreed not to use Sloane’s last name so as to “to protect her daughters’ privacy and college-recruitment chances.” It’s this journalistic commitment — to protect a source — that animates Barrett’s complaint against the Atlantic.

In its editor’s note explaining the retraction, the Atlantic writes that “a Washington Post media critic” (the Erik Wemple Blog) queried the magazine on some of the story’s specifics, one of which was that Sloane had a son in addition to her three daughters. The Atlantic investigated the matter, discovering that there was no son. What’s more, the Atlantic said, Sloane’s attorney told the magazine that based on his client’s account, it was Barrett who “had first proposed the invention of a son, and encouraged Sloane to deceive The Atlantic as a way to protect her anonymity.”

Here’s how the editor’s note describes what happened next:

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 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.”

In her complaint, Barrett pins the invention of a son on Sloane and her husband, and adds context: “Ms. Barrett’s insertion of this trivially erroneous detail . . . was a result of Ms. Barrett’s commitment to protecting her confidential source — a paramount ethical duty of any reputable journalist.”

Here we have a journalist who is seeking damages — $1 million — from a news organization while at the same time admitting that she knowingly included a fabricated detail. Regardless of who birthed the fabrication, Barrett then left the magazine’s own fact-checkers in the dark about the change.

All this she tries to pass off as journalistic virtue.

Everyone behind this lawsuit should consider reading the fourth principle in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, “Be Accountable and Transparent.” Because the logic of Barrett’s complaint all but counsels the Atlantic to cover up a falsehood: “Rather than thanking Mr. Wemple for his interest in the piece and explaining that The Atlantic does not discuss its confidential sources — which is standard journalistic practice in this circumstance — The Atlantic appeared to go into panic mode,” reads the complaint, noting that Barrett opposed the Atlantic’s insistence on running a correction on the grounds that it would out the source. “The editors disagreed and said that the priority now had to be ‘accuracy.’ Ms. Barrett was essentially ordered to put her obligation to her superiors at The Atlantic above her contractual and ethical obligations to her source,” says the complaint.

That’s a breathtaking bit of legal gymnastics. By this point, Barrett had already betrayed her obligations to the Atlantic and to journalism. Yet now she claims to be a champion of contractual and ethical righteousness.

Protecting sources is a critical journalistic imperative, and it may well be that the Atlantic didn’t share Barrett’s urgency vis-a-vis Sloane. Her legal team is particularly suited to challenge the magazine on this front: One of her lawyers, Elliot C. Rothenberg, argued a key source-protection case before the Supreme Court (Cohen v. Cowles Media, in which the court held that a news organization couldn’t use the First Amendment to wiggle out of a confidentiality promise — essentially a contractual obligation — to a source).

In a gobsmacking conclusory flourish, the suit claims, “Journalistic ethics also fails to unambiguously answer whether a journalist can alter a negligible detail about a confidential source to protect the source’s anonymity.”

Even the Atlantic acknowledged this ambiguity, argues the suit. Editors proposed “to alter a lacrosse coach’s quote so that it referenced ‘multiple’ students rather than a single student,” alleges the suit, “based on a warning from the magazine’s legal department that the coach’s original quote could render the student identifiable.” A statement from the Atlantic reads, in part, “Of course we do not alter quotes.” The coach himself, Jeff Brameier of Darien High School, told this blog that he was quoted accurately.

Public figures face factual hurdles in asserting defamation claims. They must prove that the defendant knew that it was making false statements or acted with reckless disregard to their truth or falsity (a.k.a. the “actual malice” standard). According to the suit, however, “Ms. Barrett is not a public official. She is not a politician. She is not a public figure under any remotely reasonable definition of the phrase. She is just a private individual, no more and no less.”

True: Ruth S. Barrett may be a “private individual”; but Ruth Shalit Barrett, with her Wikipedia page and high-profile past, may have a tougher time laying claim to the commoner’s legal threshold. Plus: The law recognizes another category of libel plaintiff, the “limited purpose” public figure, who also must prove actual malice. That designation applies to someone who “voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues,” the Supreme Court has held. For any debate about journalistic standards, Barrett is the platonic ideal of a limited-purpose public figure.

To move away from the legal weeds, the lawsuit bashes the Erik Wemple Blog on many occasions. We’re portrayed as a “bully” who browbeats the Atlantic, as being a “powerful, vindictive media critic with a megaphone and a mean streak” and as a purveyor of “mudslinging and vilification” — all glorious examples of constitutionally protected hyperbole.

The complaint’s claim that Barrett had a decades-long “antagonistic relationship with Mr. Wemple” treads on more empirical turf. For the life of the Erik Wemple Blog, we can’t recall having any interactions with her prior to 2020. Memories are faulty, and Barrett’s controversial career in Washington journalism dates back decades, so we could be forgetting something.

We’ve asked her and Rothenberg for any details on our contentious past.