Twenty-five years ago, Ruth Shalit Barrett was a rising young political reporter with a contract at GQ magazine when accusations of plagiarism derailed her career as an associate editor at The New Republic. Since leaving that magazine for an advertising job in 1999, she has written occasionally for New York and Elle magazines.
Now, Ms. Barrett finds herself accused of journalism malpractice once again after The Atlantic published an extraordinary editor’s note on Friday suggesting that Ms. Barrett had deceived the publication in a buzzy article she wrote about wealthy parents prodding their children to play niche sports in hopes of getting them into Ivy League schools.
The more than 6,000-word article, which was published online last month and appears in the magazine’s November print edition, chronicles a world of wealthy parents in the Connecticut suburbs obsessed with pushing their children into sports like fencing, crew and squash, which they believe will give them an advantage in the hypercompetitive college admissions process.
In a nearly 800-word editor’s note, The Atlantic said that, after it had published the article, “new information emerged that has raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.”
The deception, according to the editor’s note, centered on a woman featured in the article, who was identified by her middle name, Sloane. She was described as a stay-at-home mother with three daughters and a son, details that The Atlantic’s fact-checking department said it had verified with the mother before publication.
But Sloane later acknowledged through her lawyer that she does not have a son, according to the editor’s note, which said it had investigated the issue after questions were raised by a Washington Post media critic, Erik Wemple.
According to the editor’s note, Sloane’s lawyer said Ms. Barrett had “first proposed the invention of a son, and encouraged Sloane to deceive The Atlantic as a way to protect her anonymity.”
“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 editor’s note said. “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.”
The editor’s note said that although Ms. Barrett had denied that the invention of a son was her idea, she had acknowledged that “‘on some level I did know that it was BS’ and ‘I do take responsibility.’”
The note came more than two decades after Ms. Barrett left The New Republic in 1999 after being accused of plagiarism.
Those accusations, in 1994 and 1995, were based on a close resemblance between passages and sentences in articles Ms. Barrett wrote and material in articles by other reporters on the same subjects. At the time, she said she had confused her typewritten notes with articles downloaded from the research site Lexis-Nexis. The New Republic printed apologies for both incidents.
The Atlantic said it had assigned her the article as a freelancer because more than two decades had passed since those incidents and because her work had appeared in reputable magazines in recent years. The editor’s note said The Atlantic also considered the argument that Ms. Barrett deserved a second chance.
“We were wrong to make this assignment, however,” the editor’s note said. “It reflects poor judgment on our part, and we regret our decision.”
In an interview on Saturday night, Ms. Barrett said she had hoped her article would start a discussion about the “broader social and economic issues” raised by the lavish spending, injuries and cutthroat competition in niche youth sports.
“I never imagined an outcome like this,” she said. “And I’m so very sorry that this is where things have ended up.”
She said that the invention of Sloane’s son was not her idea, however, and that it was something Sloane had told her about.
“The claim that I told her to pretend she had a son that didn’t exist is not true. Absolutely not true,” she said.
She said she blamed herself for not verifying the existence of a son.
“All of my internal alarms went off about the claim of the son, and I was wrong not to drill down and resolve it,” she said. “I did not cook this up with her. But I take responsibility for it.”
Ms. Barrett said she “got no benefit” from the creation of a son and “it didn’t make the article better.”
“Even if you want to attribute to me the most malign motives, there was nothing to be gained,” she said. “It was just a lapse.”
The editor’s note said The Atlantic had corrected other details in the article, including one about the severity of a neck injury sustained by Sloane’s middle daughter and another about the size of backyard hockey rinks which, although large and equipped with floodlights and generators, are not “Olympic-size,” as the article initially stated.
The Atlantic said it had also updated Ms. Barrett’s byline on the article, which was initially Ruth S. Barrett, at her request, but has since been changed to Ruth Shalit Barrett. Ruth Shalit was Ms. Barrett’s byline in the 1990s when the plagiarism incidents occurred, and the editor’s note said it had made the change “in the interest of transparency.”
“We are continuing to review this article,” the editor’s note said. “We will correct any errors we find, and we will communicate our findings to our readers as speedily as possible.”
Ms. Barrett said she was sorry she had embarrassed The Atlantic and broken its trust with readers.
“I’m not the same person I was 25 years ago,” she said. “This piece meant a great deal to me. And I wanted it to be my best work.”
Concepción de León contributed reporting.