Can a journalist with past credibility issues ever be redeemed or truly rehabilitated or will they be forever tarnished by past transgressions? If the former, is there a statute of limitations or a timeline for reentering the field?
Those questions have surfaced as Ruth Shalit Barrett, the controversial writer who resigned from The New Republic in 1999 amid claims of plagiarism and credibility issues, was back in the news.
Barrett filed suit for $1 million this month against The Atlantic, accusing the venerable magazine of defamation when it retracted her Oct 2020 story “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents,” about affluent Connecticut parents trying to get their kids into coveted Ivy League schools.
According to an editor’s note, the magazine said Barrett had “misled fact-checkers and lied to editors.”
Unlike some other troubled journalists, including former NYT reporter Jayson Blair and former New Republic staffer Stephen Glass, who were basically forced to leave the profession, Barrett was given second chances. Following her departure from New Republic, she wrote pieces for both Elle and New York Magazine.
Opinions were mixed on whether redemption or rehabilitation of a writer is possible once they cross the trust threshold.
“The Atlantic, clearly wrongly, saw some clear benefit to her [Barrett] reporting and thought her writing could benefit the publication,” said Jonathan Bailey, a New Orleans-based plagiarism and copyright consultant and editor of plagiarismtoday.com.
Bailey said that the magazine did something unethical themselves in trying to cover up the situation, “but they clearly thought it was worth the risk. Perhaps they thought she had fallen out of the public consciousness.”
Annie Wilkinson, an editor and writer who has worked for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and currently for Long Island Press, is not a big believer in writer rehab.
“Ruth Shalit Barrett should not have been given a second chance: If she couldn’t play by journalism’s rules–as do so many journalists who preserve the integrity of newspaper and magazine publishing–she needs to find a new source of income.”
Wilkinson added that the reputable media today has to be “held to a higher standard than ever before if it’s going to survive the criticisms leveled by those who would tear it down.”
She also said that if one is going to represent an organization, “one has to play by the rules.”
Even former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who resigned from the paper in 2003 after it was found that many of his stories contained fabricated and plagiarized information, agreed that it’s a rough road for a journalist to travel after a fall from grace.
“Once you’ve done something that leads people to question your trust, your effectiveness in the field becomes limited. You don’t have the right to go back,” Blair told a group of Duke University students in 2016 at a Duke Reporter’s Lab talk about his departure from the Times.
“I still love journalism,” he said. “I miss it. (But) it just doesn’t work without the trust.”
I think everyone deserves another chance to make things right, but it is a long road for a journalist to rebuild trust after a complete breakdown in credibility,” said Colin DeVries, president of the Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of SPJ, and a former editor at the New York Daily News and Times-Ledger Newspapers in New York City.
Asked about the concept of writer redemption, DeVries said it’s not easy, but possible.
“Can someone be redeemed? Sure. It’s possible. Look at Brian Williams. He continued to broadcast for years after his extraordinary fall from grace, but he never reached the same height in his career after he lied on air.”
DeVries added that for a writer, restoring trust in an editor can be extremely tough.
“Editors generally want writers they can rely on, not someone who needs extra layers of vetting to ensure accuracy. No one has the time or resources for that these days,” he said, adding that “adhering to a high ethical standard by following the SPJ Code of Ethics not only is fulfilling the promise of what journalism should be, but also setting yourself up for success as someone who can be relied upon to deliver the goods on deadline.”
Bailey also seemed to indicate that the concepts of redemption or rehabilitation can also be subject to market forces.
“What really matters is whether the journalist in question is more or less trouble than they are worth,” Bailey said.
He noted that former Buzzfeed writer Benny Johnson, for example, has a built-in audience due to his political leanings.
“He can always find a home because, despite his history, he does more to boost than tarnish other publications (at least in terms of audience) … One of the frustrations is that some journalists, like Benny Johnson, commit repeated infractions of journalism ethics but are never without a job very long.”
However, he said that others like Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, basically have “permanent bans.”
“There’s no real pattern to this, just publications deciding if a journalist is more valuable than their reputation is harmful.”
In the final analysis, Bailey believes that while time may not be a magical elixir, the public’s ability to recall troubled writers may have a limited shelf-life.
“As long as memories are, people have a lot to think about and most people don’t give a lot of headspace or energy to remembering plagiarists and fabulists,” he said.
“People may not forget, but their ability to care does wane over time. Outside of journalism and people, such as myself, that focus heavily on this field, time may not heal wounds, but it does lessen them.”
Alan Krawitz is a veteran independent NYC journalist with more than 20 years experience writing/reporting on topics such as politics, education, immigration and criminal justice for outlets including Newsday, Metro NY, Zenger News and Long Island Press.