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The Atlantic Forced To Issue Major Correction To Report After Admitting Author ‘Deceived’ Readers

The Atlantic Forced To Issue Major Correction To Report After Admitting Author ‘Deceived’ Readers

 

The Atlantic was forced to issue a major correction to a report late on Friday night, admitting that an author lied to them and their readers, after a media critic at The Washington Post dug into the report and found numerous issues with it.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple dismantled a piece authored by Ruth Shalit Barrett, who allegedly has a checkered past including “a trail of journalistic scandal.

The story that Wemple picked apart led readers to believe that fencing was a dangerous, bloody sport. Barrett wrote about two injuries allegedly sustained by a young girl in Connecticut last year. The Atlantic article claimed that the girl was “stabbed in the jugular” right “next to the carotid artery.” The article also claimed that the 12-year-old girl, Sloane, had previously been “gashed so deeply in the thigh that blood seeped through her pants.”

Wemple began:

The Erik Wemple Blog wrote last week that these counted as freakish events in one of the world’s safest sports. The Atlantic has already issued one correction on the story — a claim about Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks — prompted by this blog’s questions. Now there appear to be yet more problems.

Wemple noted that there were problems with the way that the girl’s injuries were portrayed in the article. Wemple outlined the following additional problems that he found with the report, which he noted slipped past The Atlantic’s “fact-checking” team:

  • Sloane’s middle name. The story relies on anonymized parents to provide quotes depicting them as unaware tyrants. “Sloane” is the alleged middle name of the mother guiding her athletic daughters through Fairfield’s cutthroat sporting world, an allowance designed to protect her privacy and her kids’ “college-recruitment chances.” Except public records searches for the mother’s real name show no “Sloane” whatsoever, which would make it a pseudonym.
  • Where’s the son? The Atlantic reports that Sloane’s husband took the “couple’s two younger girls and son” to Ohio. Sources close to the family say there is no son. The marquee photo on the father’s Facebook page shows three smiling girls.
  • An improbable phone call. At the top of the article, Barrett writes that during the July 4 weekend last year, Sloane “was crouched in the vestibule of the Bay Club in Redwood City, strategizing on the phone with her husband about a ‘malicious refereeing’ dispute that had victimized her daughter at the California Summer Gold tournament. He had his own problem. In Columbus, Ohio, at the junior-fencing nationals with the couple’s two younger girls and son, he reported that their middle daughter, a 12-year-old saber fencer, had been stabbed.”  The text gives the impression that the two crises were overlapping. But the California Summer Gold tournament in Redwood City took place from June 28 to 30, a week before the “massacre” in Columbus on July 7. Could Sloane have alighted on the squash-tourney vestibule a full week after the competition concluded? That’s possible, but US Squash, which accredits the tournament, confirms that all on-site tournament business had concluded the week prior.
  • Lacrosse weirdness: Bates College of Lewiston, Maine, ducks into the Atlantic story just long enough to become party to a misimpression: “Alpha sports parents followed the rules,” writes Barrett, “only to discover that they’d built the 80th- or 90th-best lacrosse midfielder in the country. Which, it turns out, barely qualifies you for a spot at the bottom of the roster at Bates.” Arithmetic exposes the distortion here. There are about 400 collegiate lacrosse programs in the United States — 70-plus in Division I, with top contenders including several Ivy League schools. All of them need to recruit several midfielders per year. Casey D’Annolfo, head lacrosse coach at Tufts University, which has won three national championships in the past decade and competes in the same conference as Bates, says, “If we got the 80th-best midfielder in the class, he would make the team without question, and if he continued on that trajectory, he would most likely be a starter for us and have the potential to be an All-American for us.” Speaking of the Atlantic’s lacrosse-recruiting assessment, D’Annolfo said, “We got a good laugh out of it at Bates’s expense, but we all know what a ridiculous and inaccurate statement it is.”
  • Nonsensical quotes: In a scene from a squash tournament at Chelsea Piers in Stamford in January, Barrett reports overhearing a parent saying, “Georgetown has gone cold. But he may get the last spot at Columbia.” But Georgetown University offers only a club squash team, meaning that it does not recruit and does not go “cold” on anyone. “We cross our fingers,” says Georgetown club team captain Luca Perper. Columbia University, by contrast, has one of the most competitive varsity squash programs in the United States. Another quote from the same scene: “Did you see that kid Mohammed? … No, the other Mohammed. His academics aren’t strong, but his squash is unbelievable.” No one with the name Mohammed was registered to compete in that tournament.

Late on Friday night, The Atlantic was forced to issue a major correction to the piece and stated that it was not done investigating the article.

The Atlantic’s correction stated:

After The Atlantic published this article, new information emerged that has raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

We have established that Barrett deceived The Atlantic and its readers about a section of the story that concerns a person referred to as “Sloane.” We are sharing with our readers what we have learned so far.

The original version of this article stated that Sloane has a son. Before publication, Sloane confirmed this detail to be true to The Atlantic’s fact-checking department. After publication, when a Washington Post media critic asked us about the accuracy of portions of the article, our fact-checking department reached out to Sloane to recheck certain details. Through her attorney, Sloane informed us that she does not, in fact, have a son. We have independently corroborated that Sloane does not have a son, and we have corrected the story to remove the reference to her having a son.

In explaining Sloane’s reasoning for telling our fact-checker she had a son, Sloane’s attorney told The Atlantic that she wanted to make herself less readily identifiable. Her attorney also said that according to Sloane, 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 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.”

Sloane’s attorney claimed that there are several other errors about Sloane in the article but declined to provide The Atlantic with examples. Barrett says that the fabricated son is the only detail about which she deceived our fact-checkers and editors. Our fact-checking department is continuing to thoroughly recheck the article.

We have already corrected and clarified other details in the story. During the initial fact-checking process, we corroborated many details of Sloane’s story with sources other than Sloane. But the checking of some details of Sloane’s story relied solely on interviews and other communications with Sloane or her husband or both of them.

We have clarified a detail about a neck injury sustained by Sloane’s middle daughter, to be more precise about its severity. We have corrected a detail about a thigh injury, originally described as a deep gash but more accurately described as a skin rupture that bled through a fencing uniform. And we’ve corrected the location of a lacrosse family mentioned in the article: They do not live in Greenwich, Connecticut, but in another town in Fairfield County.

On October 22, we noted and corrected another error in the story: The article originally referenced Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks, but although the private rinks are large and equipped with floodlights and generators, they are not Olympic-size.

We are also updating Barrett’s byline. Originally, we referred to her as Ruth S. Barrett. When writing recently for other magazines, Barrett was identified by her full name, Ruth Shalit Barrett. (Barrett is her married name.) In 1999, when she was known by Ruth Shalit, she left The New Republic, where she was an associate editor, after plagiarism and inaccurate reporting were discovered in her work. We typically defer to authors on how their byline appears—some authors use middle initials, for example, or shorter versions of their given name. We referred to Barrett as Ruth S. Barrett at her request, but 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. We have changed the byline on this article to Ruth Shalit Barrett.

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. We took into consideration the argument that Barrett deserved a second chance to write feature stories such as this one. We were wrong to make this assignment, however. It reflects poor judgment on our part, and we regret our decision.

We are continuing to review this article. We will correct any errors we find, and we will communicate our findings to our readers as speedily as possible.

News of the correction sent shockwaves throughout the media and political world late on Friday night and into the early morning hours on Saturday.

The Atlantic has come under fire in recent weeks over an article that it wrote that claimed, based solely on anonymous sources, that President Donald Trump called fallen U.S. soldiers “suckers” and “losers.” Fourteen people who were with Trump on the trip went on record and stated The Atlantic’s reporting was not true.


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