The Commons

Readers respond to our November 2020 issue and more.

Katie Martin

Editor’s Note

In the November issue, The Atlantic published “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents.” After we published this article, new information emerged that raised serious concerns about its accuracy, and about the credibility of the author, Ruth Shalit Barrett.

As we shared with our readers on on November 1, we have decided to retract this article. We cannot attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author, and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the piece in its entirety.

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.” The article (a PDF of which you can access on our website) stated that Sloane has a son. Before publication, Sloane confirmed this detail with 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 have a son, a fact we then independently corroborated.

Sloane’s attorney told The Atlantic that Sloane had misled the magazine because she had wanted to make herself less readily identifiable—and that Barrett had proposed the invention of a son as a way to protect her anonymity.

When we asked Barrett about these allegations, she eventually 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 examples. Barrett says that the fabricated son is the only detail about which she deceived our fact-checkers and editors.

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.

In reviewing the article again after publication, before we retracted it, our fact-checking department identified several additional errors: We corrected the characterization of a thigh injury (originally described as a deep gash but more accurately described as a skin rupture that bled through a fencing uniform); the location of a lacrosse family mentioned in the article (they do not live in Greenwich, Connecticut, but in another town in Fairfield County); and a characterization of backyard hockey rinks as “Olympic-size” (the private rinks are large, but not Olympic-size).

Originally, we referred to the author of the article as Ruth S. Barrett. When writing recently for other magazines, Barrett was typically 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 after plagiarism and inaccurate reporting were discovered in her work. We typically defer to authors on how their byline appears. 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. On our website, 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 had 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. We were wrong to make this assignment, however. It reflects poor judgment on our part, and we regret our decision.

Our fact-checking department thoroughly checked this piece, speaking with more than 40 sources and independently corroborating information. But we now know that the author misled our fact-checkers, lied to our editors, and is accused of inducing a source to lie to our fact-checking department. We believe that these actions fatally undermined the effectiveness of the fact-checking process. It is impossible for us to vouch for the accuracy of this article. This is what necessitated a full retraction. We apologize to our readers.

Last Exit

Donald Trump’s first term was characterized by theft, lies, corruption, and the incitement of violence. A second term, David Frum warned in the November issue, might have spelled the end of American democracy.

David Frum was right when, almost four years ago, he forecast what President Donald Trump would do. But is it right to put all the blame on Trump? As Frum concedes, the president may flout this convention or that tradition, but he is invariably operating within his powers under the Constitution.

The United States has had a president without a popular mandate, a Supreme Court appointed along party lines, gerrymandered districts, disrespect for human life through the death penalty and lack of strict gun control, and unaccountable and discretionary executive power. This falls far short of what democracy means to many people today.

Mike Norris
Dublin, Ireland

Mr. Frum’s insights are much appreciated. My question is, given the institutionalization of corruption and the very conservative Supreme Court, what constitutional amendments are necessary to preserve democracy, even after Trump?

Bruce Riddle
White River Junction, Vt.

Why British Police Shows Are Better

When you take away guns and shootings, Christopher Orr wrote in November, you have more time to explore grief, guilt, and the psychological complexity of crime.

British police shows tend to have fewer, longer episodes than American police shows. They play like mini-movies. Hinterland and Shetland are beautifully filmed, and that quality is easier to sustain over a shorter season. The longer episodes also allow more character development. While I agree that the focus of the shows is usually different from that of American series, the structure of the shows is also a key difference in their ability to portray characters and convey mood.

Stuart Safford
Rockville, Md.

The one glaring omission in Christopher Orr’s reasons for loving British police shows is the actors: They look like real people, not 20-somethings with glowing white teeth and flowing hair. They are a pleasure indeed to watch.

Kathryn Wert
Cambridge, Idaho

Behind the Art

When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Li Zhensheng was a photojournalist for a local newspaper in Harbin. Wearing a “Red-Color News Soldier” armband, Li gained unfettered access to the revolutionary movement, but only the “positive” images were published at the time. Li stashed the “negative” images under his floorboards until 1988, when they were finally revealed to the world. Li’s work, which accompanies Barbara Demick’s review, “China’s Rebel Historians,” remains one of the most complete visual archives of the Cultural Revolution. Li died in 2020.

Emily Jan, Art Director