Too Much Too Soon? (interview)
Success came early for The New Republic's 25-year-old Ruth Shalit. But now she finds her career tarnished by plagiarism, factual errors and sharp criticism of her article on race and the Washington Post. She hopes there are second acts in journalism.
Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
Soon after graduating from Princeton Phi Beta Kappa in 1992, Ruth Shalit began interning at The New Republic. Practically overnight she became a star – a TNR associate editor writing cover stories for the political weekly as well as for the New York Times Sunday magazine, with a $45,000-a-year contract to do pieces for GQ.
Obviously smart, a writer with insight and flair, Shalit, 25, flew up the ladder – but not without stumbling. Along the way she plagiarized in at least two highly publicized instances – by accident, she says (see Bylines, September). She found herself charged with slanting facts to fit her theories. But none of this prepared her for the intensity of the reaction to her October 2 New Republic cover story on race relations at the Washington Post.
The 13,000-word article charged that the Post had lowered hiring standards in an attempt to diversify its newsroom and had softened news coverage of black politicians so as not to offend African American readers. While some praised Shalit for raising important issues much whispered about but rarely explored in print, the young writer also became the target of intense criticism, particularly from Post Publisher Donald Graham and Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., who accused her of "racial McCarthyism."
To some, the vehement reaction – Downie's response occupied a page-and-a-half in the October 16 issue of TNR – suggested Shalit had struck a nerve. But she undercut her efforts with a series of factual errors that undermined her credibility. And a number of people quoted in the piece said that Shalit had misquoted them or had taken their remarks out of context. Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief and columnist James Warren described her as the "journalistic Unabomber."
Shalit spent weeks under siege trying to salvage her reputation. Despite the unrelenting criticism, the Wisconsin native has gamely faced her attackers – answering
telephone calls, granting interviews, appearing on radio and television. Not surprisingly, she appears shaken as well as chastened by the onslaught.
(Even a little paranoid. When Michael J.N. Bowles, who photographed Shalit for AJR, took a quick Polaroid of Shalit to check the lighting, she demanded to see it. He demurred and stuck it in his pants pocket. Undaunted, Shalit reached into his pocket and grabbed the picture.)
Many say it's a case of too much too fast for a young woman whose only pre-TNR journalism experience was editing a conservative alternative college newspaper. Like a supernova, she flashed and burned. Now she says she's ready to reinvent herself journalistically so her work – and not she – will be the focus of attention.
In mid-October AJR talked with Shalit about her early success, her mistakes and the unnerving experience of taking on a media giant:
AJR: After college, did you go right to The New Republic?
RS: I started as an intern but knew this was my fantasy scenario, getting asked to stay. As an intern I threw my heart into it. I was bloodless. I just pounded the pavement and cranked out stories.
AJR: So you went from an intern in January 1993 to associate editor in September?
RS: Yes, things happened to me really, really quickly.
AJR: Any one of the stories you've done at TNR you are proud of?
RS: If you look back at what I've written, I've written some pretty hard-hitting stories that have held up admirably well under close scrutiny. I'm proud of my story on [Sen.] Carol Moseley-Braun. It was a profile of her showing how she brought together old style pork barrel politics and new style identity politics to create this new '90s kind of persona that was chillingly effective.
AJR: What about the plagiarism charges?
RS: In my first interview about it with the Washington Post, I said these were banal sentences or boilerplate sentences. That looks like I'm trying to minimize it. I don't. The fact is that someone else's words appeared in my story. Aside from lying, that's the most egregious offense in journalism. It doesn't matter that it happened inadvertently. That's an excuse. I've flagellated myself and groveled and begged forgiveness. I really hope there's a second act in journalism in Washington and there's hope for redemption.
AJR: What exactly happened?
RS: In my case, the mistake came from having somebody else's words on my screen. From downloading Nexis searches as text files and then putting them onto my screen and later conflating them with my own notes. That is always a bad idea. I'm printing out all of my Nexis searches so somebody else's words are not up on my computer screen and I'm not toggling back and forth.
AJR: What did you learn from this?
RS: That's the technical lesson I've learned. But more profoundly, I've learned how precarious things can be. How the entire structure of your life can be overthrown. And how a culture that once showered me with love and called me an up-and-comer and a rising star can suddenly turn on me maniacally.
AJR: How could it happen twice? If it happened once, didn't you learn the first time?
RS: You know, it's actually happened three times. One thing that's happened as a result of the controversy generated by the Post piece is people have been going over my past pieces line by line. They actually found a third incident in my story on Bob Bennett for the New York Times. Again, a sentence and a half of biographical material that is very similar to a sentence that appeared in the National Journal.
AJR: Let's talk about the October 2 piece on the Post. Whose idea was this?
RS: It was my idea.
AJR: Len Downie says this was an idea that has been circulating at TNR and that owner Marty Peretz has wanted to do this story for a long time because he's anti-affirmative action.
RS: It was completely my idea. My piece is not a polemic against affirmative action. If you go back and read the piece, I say that in a diverse society you need a diverse staff.
AJR: What made you want to do the story?
RS: After being a journalist in Washington for several years, it became clear to me the Post was a deeply racially divided institution. Both blacks and whites felt victimized and aggrieved by discrimination. The Post was trying to move minority reporters up the ladder and make things more equitable. But the more they did, the worse everybody seemed to feel.
AJR: How long did you spend reporting it?
RS: Four or five months.
AJR: Tell me in your words what the piece was about.
RS: The piece was a case study of affirmative action and its excesses and blunders at a particular institution in a particular segment of society. The whole point of doing a case study was to avoid unsupported generalizations and sweeping conclusions and to try to document precisely and specifically how affirmative action works in practical terms and what the real and immediate impact it has on lives of staffers at one institution.
AJR: Is there anything now you would have done differently?
RS: There were a couple of lines in the piece that were taken out of context and used as weapons to discredit me and to lump me with [conservative authors] who actually do believe that blacks in the aggregate are less able than whites.
AJR: And you?
RS: I don't believe that. In fact, I'm a supporter of affirmative action.
AJR: You wrote, "If editors refuse to adjust their traditional hiring standards, they will end up with a nearly all white staff." What did you mean?
RS: I meant the traditional hiring standards would produce a staff of fair-haired boys with gilded resumés.
AJR: That one sentence keeps coming back to haunt you.
RS: I should have been more precise. Also, I was making reference to the small pool of minority journalists, which is something the Post itself admits and deplores.
AJR: The implication was the Post will have to suspend its traditional hiring practices to get qualified minorities, i.e., lower the standards. Isn't that insulting to minorities?
RS: That just wasn't the context in which I said it. This one particular sentence is being used to indict my racial good faith, essentially. If you look at the Post's own internal documents, they say, quote, "We will fall short of our goals if we are not more flexible and creative," unquote. Nobody should be placed in jobs for which they are not ready. The word "ready" is subjective. These are trade-offs the Post admits to in its own internal documents. I might have put it more starkly. This should not be construed as a plea for a return to an all white newsroom. I think there are compelling financial and journalistic reasons to have a diverse staff.
AJR: Some people have lauded the Post for its efforts to diversify its staff. You wrote very critically about their attempts and have called it "wrongheaded." What should they do?
RS: I think that what I wrote in my piece is if the Post, who tries so hard and means so well, is falling short of this laudable goal, then what hope is there for the rest of us? You have to, in the end, fall back on imaginative editors who are willing to take a chance with a creative hire and not couch everything in the language of goals, timetables and mechanics. In fact, by focusing obsessively on the mechanics, the Post is ensuring we are never going to get beyond it.
AJR: What bothered me is you wrote white editors use the diversity goal as an excuse for not hiring someone. I find that one of the most divisive elements.
RS: And it goes on all the time. I wish I had had more space to talk about that. That has become the all-purpose way of letting people down easy that you don't want to hire. Instead of saying, "Your clips aren't up to snuff," it's, "You're perfect for the job but you're the wrong color."
AJR: Does it take sensitivity training like the Post is doing now?
RS: I think sensitivity training is precisely the wrong path. I think reporters are skeptical people by nature. I think they blanch at that sort of psychobabble game playing.
AJR: Len Downie has talked about the need to train editors. What can he do other than training?
RS: I don't think there's anything wrong with taking your editors aside and saying, "Look, when you don't tell people the truth about why they aren't being hired, you create the very racism we are trying to eradicate here. Stop doing it."
AJR: Why didn't you mention TNR having no black staffers?
RS: We've had African American interns before. I agree with you. I think it would have helped my cause to put in problems that TNR has had.
AJR: What were the difficulties in reporting the piece?
RS: It was wild. It was like doing a piece on the CIA. I had reporters calling me from phone booths. I met reporters in cafes in Arlington [a Washington suburb]. This was something that people wanted to talk about, but they were afraid of retribution and they turned out to be right.
AJR: Anonymous sources are quite controversial and you have a few in there. Did you have any concerns about how they might diminish the credibility of the piece?
RS: I think people understand that the race issue is so combustible and divisive that a lot of people want to talk about it on background because they are afraid that what they say will be misinterpreted.
AJR: About half of the people you quoted by name have either backed down or denied they said certain things. Why?
RS: I think that recantations have to be understood in the climate of fear that Len Downie has created. After the piece was published he called a meeting of 400 staffers in which he denounced me personally and said nothing in the piece was true and invited staffers to give testimonials to racial harmony. In that climate it's understandable, although unfortunate, that reporters would feel compelled to distance themselves from quotes that were accurately reported and offered in context.
AJR: So the piece appears. Did you have any idea of what the reaction would be?
RS: I was naive. I honestly thought I wrote a piece that was fair-minded and balanced and responsible and that it would be received respectfully, that Post editors might take issue with some parts of it, but they wouldn't go after me with a meat ax the way they did.
AJR: What happened?
RS: I realized right away that was naive. I didn't expect a newspaper to behave like a politician and go after the messenger and try to deflect attention from the substance of my conclusions by essentially starting an opposition research clearinghouse on me personally. But I stand by the story and my editors stand by the story.
AJR: What's been the response?
RS: That's what's kept me going, the enormous and gratifying response I received. Not just from white journalists, but from black journalists as well, who appreciated the piece's effort to grapple with a pretty intractable problem and thought it raised issues that couldn't be wished away.
AJR: How has it affected you?
RS: I think that I built a reputation as a journalist who in some respects went after people. People saw me as a hatchet woman who set out to take powerful people down a peg or two. This has been very sobering and chastening and, I think, in the long run, valuable because I've realized what it's like to be on the other side. I've realized what it's like to have my arguments mischaracterized. What it's like to have quotes taken out of context. What it's like to be misquoted. And what it's like to be under a cloud waking up every morning filled with this tortured anxiety wondering where the ax is going to fall next. It's not going to turn me into a milquetoast reporter who writes celebratory puff pieces. But it's been very chastening, very humbling and I think marks the end of a certain phase of my career.
AJR: Let's talk about errors in the piece. Len Downie has said there were some 40 factual errors. You dispute him. But what about the errors?
RS: I think there were several factual inaccuracies. The Post had two black reporters, not zero, on its national staff in 1972, and a couple of other errors of that degree, and one serious mistake [the story incorrectly stated that D.C. city contractor Roy Littlejohn served time for corruption charges], which we apologized for. What this has taught me is that whenever you go after journalists, especially one of the biggest, most powerful media institutions in the country, you've got to make sure your piece is triple riveted and that you've gone over every line, and you don't give them any weapons to use against you because they will.
AJR: It's not just journalists. Any subject you tackle ought to be triple riveted. If you have errors, then that undermines your credibility for the rest of your piece.
RS: This is just one piece. Len Downie says, "Her previous pieces have drawn numerous letters complaining of factual inaccuracies." That's just not true. This is the first time there's been this hoopla over factual errors in any of my pieces. I take it very seriously and I'm going to overreach in the other direction because I don't ever want to go through this again.
AJR: How have your bosses been? What about the mistakes?
RS: They've been incredibly supportive. They want my next story to be about a boy and his pony.
AJR: Much is made of your age. You're 25. Do you find it insulting?
RS: Not especially. I am a young reporter who tried to pick a fight, who tackled a big topic. Unfortunately some little things fell through the cracks. Understandably they would be attributable to youthful exuberance and inexperience. I can tell you as someone who really does believe in the goals of racial equality, it's been very hard for me to be accused of racial bad faith. Jonathan Alter in Newsweek calls me the beneficiary of diversity hiring, implying that I wouldn't have gotten my job at TNR if I weren't a woman. That to me is more offensive and outrageous than anything I wrote in my story.
AJR: How do you think this has affected your career? Has the Post piece been good for it?
RS: You want to be famous, not infamous. Len Downie has been very aggressive about getting his narrative out there. His narrative is that everything at the Post is perfect and wonderful and they've been victimized by this derivative racist, Ruth Shalit. Before this came out I was an anonymous little shrimp. Now I'm not sure what I am. But I'm looking forward to writing inoffensive, boring, 1,200-word pieces that are discussed on their own merits.
AJR: You've been obviously very successful, Ruth, in a short amount of time. Is this a case of too much too soon?
RS: I've heard that line on me – that I set enormously high goals for myself and that in trying to reach them I was somehow unscrupulous or rapacious or unprincipled. That's just not true.
AJR: What is true?
RS: I'm a young reporter and things have happened to me very quickly. I think they happened because of talent and hard work. I wrote a lot of stories. I threw my heart into each one of them. And there are no final acts in Washington journalism. That's the nice thing about journalism. You can invent a new persona for yourself with every piece.
AJR: What's going to be the next persona?
RS: It's not going to be fallen Jewish woman (laughs). I think that I created enough publicity about myself. I've shown that I can reflect analytically on large topics. What I need to do now is step back a little bit, rethink, retool and establish once and for all the basic soundness of my journalistic practices.
AJR: Do you ever think about going to work at a small newspaper and learning the nuts and bolts of things like police reporting?
RS: I think there are several ways you can learn those basic journalistic practices. One is to start in a small market covering the council and police and getting taken to the woodshed by your gravelly voiced editor when you don't get something right. Another, more unconventional way is to explode onto the scene, crash and burn, experience the sort of melodramatic thunderclap of denunciation from the journalistic community, at least from one very powerful totem of that community. Then, through introspection, change your behavior.
AJR: Any thoughts on wanting to work at the Washington Post?
RS: Well, I've certainly gotten their attention. l###