Why Did This Fucking Lady Make Up a Fake Son, And Other Journalistic 'Mishaps'

Illustration for article titled Why Did This Fucking Lady Make Up a Fake Son, And Other Journalistic Mishaps
Photo: Qrodo Photos (Fair Use)

This week, Ruth S. Barrett, the semi-disgraced journalist best known for a plagiarism scandal in the ‘90s, published 2,000-odd words on Medium arguing a recently retracted Atlantic story was, basically, true enough. ”The article did contain several errors,” she admitted, one of which was the baffling inclusion of a protagonist’s completely fictional son. Barrett’s blog post runs down the issues with her story nearly line-by-line before coming to the conclusion that she hadn’t done much wrong in what is rendered as a righteous quest for truth. “This has been a difficult month for me,” she wrote towards the end. “Writers are human beings too.”

Writers are people, but they’re also people with specific jobs to do; Barret joins a rather large group of them who find it appropriate to fudge convenient details to support their larger goal. Institutionally beloved journalists going back to Alastair Reid have taken it as a matter of fact that using composite characters or imagined scenes is fair game, as long as it supports the story’s thrust. Softer iterations might include misremembering key details from interviews in ways that best support a writers claim, or sailing right past a domestic violence allegation in a quest to render a sympathetic man.

In this version of journalism—and one pretty much only championed by the people who do it without apology—the reader trusts a writer to collect facts and then spit out something that’s less a story than a vibe. Even if that were an acceptable way to think about reporting, and even outside of Barrett’s history of misplacing facts, she’s a wildly unreliable narrator considering her defense of her story centers on the idea that she’s been shining a light on a grave injustice rather than crafting a florid hate-read about the rich.

Advertisement

In her post, Barret wrote that her work was meant to draw attention to how elite sports in wealthy enclaves were “endangering the mental health” of children and “crowding out” less wealthy athletes, subjects which are granted at most a few hundred words in what she actually wrote. The original story, which ran in the November issue of The Atlantic, was the kind of privilege porn purpose-built for a certain type of glossy publication, a journey through a Connecticut suburb’s preoccupation with such country club sporting staples as fencing and squash. Wealthy parents are spending fortunes training their children to compete in sports with no future, the story asserts, in order to make them more attractive to Ivy League schools. The emotional core of the story isn’t so much the mental health of teenagers as the roiling anxiety of their parents, the elite—which makes sense, since those are the people the magazine is more or less for.

The piece is full of all kinds of class-baiting intrigue: parents tell Barrett the in-home squash courts and fencing coaches are part of the “penalty that comes with being from an advantaged zip code,” an answer to affirmative action policies that have supposedly knee-capped the children who might otherwise find themselves with an guaranteed entrance into Harvard or Yale. Nannies create dossiers of oppo research on kid’s opponents as they fly in private planes; an unnamed parent refers to elite lacrosse players as “beasts” and “stallions” with not particularly subtle racist flair. These anecdotes are interspersed with flamboyant metaphors: In the course of the story, Barret alternately compares squash tournaments to Foucoult’s panopticon and refers to them as “the Hunger Games of the ruling class.”

Barret also appears to have taken significant poetic license with the woman who leads and ends her story, a person who is identified as Sloane and has since hired an attorney. After the story’s publication the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote a series of posts interrogating some of Barrett’s premises and found that, for instance, the writer erroneously mentioned a son that Sloane didn’t have and reported overhearing a conversation about “that kid Mohammed” at a tournament where no Mohammeds were to be found. It turns out the story’s opening anecdote, which implies Sloane’s daughter had been seriously injured during a fencing match and “stabbed in the jugular,” was rather gravely over-stated, a serious problem considering it’s one of the only parts of the story in which this athletic churn is credited with much but parental angst and the wealthy’s indignant sense of being owed.

In response to these criticisms and the eventual retraction of the piece, Barrett invoked one standard defense and one unbelievable one: Even if a number of the story’s details were misstated, she wrote, the basic premise was true. The invention of Sloane’s son, she has said, was part of her attempt to mask the identity of a source—an oversight Sloane, though an attorney, has said the writer actually encouraged her to do. Leaving aside how bizarre it is to invent a family member to protect a source’s identity, or why exactly Sloane would consent to having so many other recognizable details included in the story but not her correct number of kids, Barret’s excuse is a wild distortion of a standard journalistic convention allowing at-risk sources to speak freely without fear of actual harm. There’s certainly a place for pseudonymous sourcing, and the magazine world does tend to encourage narrative flourish—but those conventions weren’t really established so Sloan could talk shit without impacting her kids’ college recruitment chances.

Advertisement

With Sloan, as in her broader defense of the story, Barret vaguely harnesses cliches about journalism to make her mistakes appear routine. “I am sharing these additional details about my reporting” she writes in her blog post “in the hope that young readers ... will continue to speak out about their experiences and seek redress for the problems I tried to bring to light.” But the voices Barret published weren’t those of young athletes speaking out about their experiences at all. They were mostly parents, speaking largely anonymously, pissed off that all the time and money they sunk into perfecting their wealthy progeny would never be enough.

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

johnbeckwith
B'dilliBay

How many of these kids freak out when they realize how much the bar got lowered for them in high school so their parents wouldn’t sue their school for giving them anything lower than an A+?

A silver lining of being quarantined is that our kids have been so far removed from institutionalized learning (we are homeschooling) that they’re finally acting more like normal human beings.