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What’s Eating Ruth Shalit Barrett?

The fallen star scribe’s nearly 30-year-old journalistic sins were exhumed by missteps in a now-retracted feature in The Atlantic, but her recent lawsuit turns on a decidedly modern magazine concern: television rights.

As is often the case when Ruth Shalit Barrett publishes an article, much of the public consternation over her now-retracted November 2020 feature in The Atlantic about competitive high school sports in bourgie suburbs — and now the lawsuit she filed last Saturday against the magazine — has centered on her and schadenfreude over her fall from grace as a young phenom writer at The New Republic during Andrew Sullivan’s mid-’90s Bell Curve era. Though The Atlantic’s side of the most recent dispute centers on the damage it claims Barrett did to its storied reputation by, the magazine alleges, colluding with a source to fabricate a phantom son to protect the source’s identity, a closer read of the legal papers reveals a much more mundane material concern of more modern vintage: the intellectual property rights of a magazine feature and the quest to convert them into a remunerative television deal.

Barrett joined The New Republic shortly after graduating from Princeton in 1992. As an associate editor, her dishy inside-the-Beltway stories quickly attracted the attention of editors at national outlets like GQ and The New York Times Magazine who offered her lucrative writing contracts, but her meteoric rise was squelched by a string of plagiarism incidents in 1993 and 1994. Then, in 1995, after she wrote a particularly vile cover story about The Washington Post’s affirmative action efforts, arguing “the integrity of newspapers is compromised in fundamental and revealing ways” by institutional initiatives to diversify newsrooms, she took a six-month leave of absence after a tsunami of criticism it educed. After her TNR colleague, the fabulist Stephen Glass, displaced Barrett as journalism’s most notorious villain, she resigned from the magazine in 1999 and switched occupations to take an advertising job, telling The New York Times her previous controversies “would be a data point about me as long as I stayed in journalism.”

But by the mid-2000s, she had started freelancing again, and after 2004, when she married Rob Barrett, an executive at the Los Angeles Times, Yahoo News, Hearst Newspapers, and currently the president of Maven Media which publishes Sports Illustrated, often used her married name, Ruth S. Barrett. She has been a contributing editor at Elle and written off-and-on for New York, but The Atlantic feature, titled “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents” and centered on the well-heeled Connecticut suburbs where she now lives, was Barrett’s most prominent reappearance in mainstream magazines during her two-decade byline rehabilitation project.

That aspiration turned into a public disaster when The Atlantic retracted the piece shortly after it was published in its November 2020 issue. The lengthy editor’s note announcing the decision said that Barrett had invented a son for one of her sources to protect their anonymity and said that the source’s lawyer told them that Barrett encouraged the source to lie to the magazine’s fact-checker about the son, an accusation Barrett denied to the editors. Barrett’s complaint denies that she originated this “masking detail,” claiming it was at the “express request” of her source, “not at the urging of Ms. Barrett, as The Atlantic falsely claimed.” (According to Barrett’s complaint, after the checker learned of a forthcoming story by Washington Postmedia critic Erik Wemple, who had criticized The Atlantic for not being forthright about Barrett’s identity, that would raise factual questions about the piece, she texted Barrett, “He’s claiming she doesn’t have a son?!”)

The editor’s note also referenced Barrett’s career arc, reminding readers of her earlier plagiarism scandals, and expressed regret for giving her a second chance by assigning her the story. “We now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing at least one source to lie to our fact-checking department,” the note read. “It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitates a full retraction.” Last January, one detail reported by Wemple suggested that The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg had not been aware that they were dealing with a writer who carried so much baggage. In 2019, as Wemple reported, “there was talk at the magazine about perhaps publishing something by Ruth Shalit. Editors were inconclusive on the matter, deciding that they’d have to evaluate a pitch and see a draft.” Barrett’s complaint said the assignment was approved in October 2019 (The Atlantic said the contract for the piece was signed on December 30, 2019, with a $13,000 fee at $2 per word) but when her draft came in — sometime in 2020 after the pandemic had resulted in the editors all working from home — Wemple reported a communication breakdown occurred with the story “known internally as the ‘Barrett piece’” and that Goldberg was unaware that it “was written by Ruth Shalit Barrett.”

Barrett’s complaint disputes the suggestion that she hid her identity in the editing process. “The assignment was approved by The Atlantic on October 31, 2019, after Ms. Barrett’s written pitch was distributed and presented at a full editorial staff meeting attended by all masthead editors,” Barrett’s lawyers wrote. “When a few editors requested to see recent clips, editor Laurie Abraham, who had worked with Ms. Barrett on previous stories for other publications, circulated a lengthy feature piece Ms. Barrett had published in New York Magazine the previous year. That piece was published under the byline Ruth Shalit Barrett. All editors at that meeting should have had full knowledge of Ms. Barrett’s name, reputation, and career as an investigative and feature writer. The notion that Ms. Abraham or Ms. Barrett engaged in any misrepresentation or chicanery in connection with her byline is a malicious lie.”

In an earlier magazine era, the retraction of the piece might have been the end of this particular publishing misadventure. But in November 2020, according to Barrett’s complaint, “an executive at a Hollywood production company” reached out to her to talk about developing the article into a TV show. But the rights weren’t Barrett’s to sell. As has become common in many writer agreements, Barrett’s contract with The Atlantic granted the magazine “exclusive worldwide rights to dramatize the Work by radio, television, motion picture, or the Internet” and required them “to make commercially reasonable efforts… to make such intellectual property rights available to interested parties and to market such rights.” So, on November 30, 2020, nearly a month after the retraction, Barrett’s intellectual property lawyer Jonathan Lyons reached out to The Atlantic’s then-managing editor Sarah Yager. “I believe [Barrett] signed your standard agreement here where The Atlantic controls such rights subject to a 50/50 split,” he wrote, but, noting the controversy, added, “I’m guessing though that The Atlantic doesn’t want to exploit or participate in such a deal though, so I was hoping we could chat about this.”

Five days later, on December 4, Allison Prevatt, then assistant general counsel for The Atlantic, sent Lyons a scathing three-page letter, which Barrett’s lawyer Hassan Zavareei shared with Off the Record. “We upheld our side of the Contract; Ms. Barrett violated hers,” Prevatt wrote. Barrett’s admission “that she included a fabrication in the Article, and that she was complicit in deceiving our editors, fact-checkers, and readers,” she argued, was tantamount to a “breach of contract” which inflicted “significant, irreparable harm” on the magazine. “When we originally published this Article and believed it to be true, we invested significant resources towards its success and development potential. But Ms. Barrett sabotaged the development potential of the Article when she chose to lie,” she wrote. “Any attempt to breathe life back into this retracted Article will reinvigorate the controversy surrounding Ms. Barrett’s journalistic malpractice conducted under The Atlantic’s name. We intend to vigorously oppose any attempt by Ms. Barrett to compound that harm.” As to the intellectual property rights, she wrote, “We reject your request to renegotiate the development of dramatic rights to this retracted Article, and strongly oppose this effort.”

Prevatt’s letter ended with the intimation that this opposition wouldn’t necessarily be the end of Barrett’s troubles. “The Atlantic expressly reserves all rights, claims, and defenses available in law and equity, including but not limited to the right to seek reimbursement for the $13,000 Article fee, compensatory damages, special damages, and injunctive relief,” she wrote. “Please also notify your client that she is obligated to preserve all records, documents, communications, and correspondence concerning her history with The Atlantic and her reporting on the Article. “

Lyons sent Prevatt a three-paragraph response on his firm’s letterhead on December 10, 2020. “As an initial matter Ms. Barrett categorically denies she breached her contract in any way or committed any journalistic malpractice,” he wrote. “It is extremely disappointing that The Atlantic has elected to respond antagonistically to my rights inquiry with false and defaming allegations.” Barrett’s current lawyers reached out to The Atlantic a year later, early in December 2021, to propose a settlement before filing the current lawsuit. According to The New York Times, along with asking the magazine to cover Barrett’s nearly $120,000 in legal fees, one of their requests was that the magazine “surrender intellectual property rights to the article.”

Though much of Barrett’s complaint deals with her allegation that The Atlantic defamed her and destroyed her journalistic reputation, she also claims that the magazine “breached its contract” with her by not facilitating the sale of the dramatic rights and opposing her efforts to sell them. Because of that, her lawyers allege, her discussions with the production executive went nowhere. “That project, and all other efforts to create derivative works,” they wrote, “have been thwarted.” Her eighth and final claim for relief in the complaint asks the court to cancel the portion of her contract with the magazine that grants the magazine the exclusive right to dramatize the story. “Because The Atlantic breached the Author’s Agreement in breaching the spirit of the contract, Ms. Barrett is entitled to pursue dramatization of the Article,” they argued.

The Atlantic was quick to respond to the complaint. “We completely reject Ms. Barrett’s allegations and believe the suit is meritless, including the breach of contract claim,” the magazine’s spokesperson Anna Bross told Off the Record. “We stand by our full retraction and editor’s note from November 2020. We will be filing a motion to dismiss this suit, and are confident we will ultimately prevail.”

Barrett’s article wouldn’t be the first partially fabricated magazine feature to inspire a screen adaptation. The 1977 John Travolta-starring disco classic Saturday Night Fever was based on Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which New York published in 1976. In the article’s original précis, Cohn wrote, “Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved,” but in a 1994 Guardian article, he admitted that he’d made the story up. “My story was a fraud,” he wrote. Is the movie any worse because of the source material’s lack of truth — or even any interest in reality? Not necessarily, but viewers have a right to feel deceived. The case of Michael Finkel was more complicated. Finkel’s contract with The New York Times Magazine was terminated in 2002 after he admitted that he’d created a fictional composite character for a story in the magazine about a boy who sold himself into slavery in Côte d’Ivoire. Finkel decided to dramatize his duplicity almost as soon as it was exposed. That plan turned into a book, True Story, about the relationship Finkel formed after his banishment from the magazine world with a murderer who had stolen his identity. The book was adapted into a 2015 film, also titled True Story, starring Jonah Hill as Finkel and James Franco as the murderer. Finkel’s case might be more complicated, too, because the movie wasn’t very good.

The debate over whether Barrett has sufficiently paid penance for her journalistic sins, of nearly three decades ago and more recently, may rage on. But like the magazine industry she has continued to claw back into, it seems she’s learned that the real money in the feature writing game has moved on. “The defamation is what grabs all the headlines, but this is also a breach of contract case,” Zavareei told Off the Record. “The contract’s pretty clear that they have a duty to market [the TV rights], and that has nothing to do with the masking of a source.”