Freelance writer Ruth Shalit Barrett sues The Atlantic for $1 million

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A writer whose article was controversially retracted by The Atlantic magazine is suing the publication.

The suit, filed by Ruth Shalit Barrett late Friday in U.S. District court in Washington, D.C., alleges The Atlantic defamed her in its retraction of an article she wrote on wealthy parents in Connecticut pushing their children into niche sports in a bid to win entrance to Ivy League schools.

In an editor’s note originally appended to the story, published in October 2020, the magazine stated that Barrett had “misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department.”

Amid a controversy that gripped D.C. media circles, leading to further fact-checking of the article including by Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, The Atlantic formally retracted the article.

Barrett, in her complaint, maintains she was “unlawfully smeared” for “acting in accordance with the law and ethical precepts of the profession of journalism,” and is seeking $1 million in damages for defamation and related complaints.

The longform article, titled “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents” came under criticism for the invention of a child who did not exist. Barrett, in her suit, says the inclusion was necessary to mask the identity of minors and a parent cited in the article.

The editor’s note appended to the article also noted that Barrett had left a position with The New Republic in 1999 under allegations of plagiarism. The magazine further said it “cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.”

After retracting the article upon its finding that Barrett was “complicit” in the decision to include the fictional child, and following a four-week internal investigation, the magazine stated that “the gravest errors occurred in the author-selection and vetting process” and that it was “implementing reforms to address flaws in our systems.”

“It was a serious error and misjudgment on my part to allow Sloane to claim this son, but my intentions were honorable,” Barrett told the New York Times following the controversy.

In her suit, Barrett disputes the magazine’s characterization of the circumstances that led to her departure from The New Republic. In the suit, she further states that Wemple “targeted” her with a “sustained campaign of mudslinging and vilification.” Wemple is not named as a defendant in the suit.

Since leaving the New Republic, Barrett worked in advertising and wrote features for Elle and New York Magazine in 2015 and 2018 respectively.

Former Atlantic editor Donald Peck is also named as a defendant in the suit. In a statement, The Atlantic spokesperson Anna Bross said: “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.”

“I’m not in command at this point of every allegation against me, but I do stand very firmly behind the work that we did on this. Obviously, she has a beef with The Atlantic and I have not yet reached a conclusion on that particular matter,” Wemple told POLITICO in a brief telephone interview on Saturday afternoon.

“I did do a lot of very deep reporting about that story and I did press The Atlantic for explanations as to why certain things appeared a little bit off about the story and that is very much what I do as a media critic,” Wemple added.

He stressed he was still in the process of assessing the details of the complaint, which runs to 106 pages.

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