You will do many foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.
— Colette, as quoted in Ruth Shalit’s
On Sept. 26, Ruth Shalit, about two weeks away from her 25th birthday, opened the Washington Post to find Metro columnist Donna Britt eating her for breakfast.
Shalit’s New Republic hit piece on the Post‘s struggles with affirmative action prompted Britt to reflect on her pregnancy: “For a day or two, this hurt. I’d rub my stomach, whisper messages of love…to my baby, and find the words tinged with regret—that the world he’s joining is so imperfect, that the goblin of racism still haunts us, black and white.”
Earlier in the month, citing the same article, Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. accused Shalit of “racial McCarthyism” in a four-page screed sent to Post staffers and later modified as a letter to the New Republic. Other writers and editors, at the Post and elsewhere, took up the attack, challenging Shalit’s reporting skills and integrity. Chicago Tribune columnist James Warren called her a “journalistic Unabomber.” And just last week, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis featured Shalit along with several conservative writers in a column titled“Racist Chic.”
The speed with which knives were drawn for Shalit (pronounced “sha-leet”) after publication of the article is, in part, a measure of the subject’s sensitivity. But it’s also a measure of the precariousness of Shalit’s exalted position in the Washington journalism world.
By the yardsticks of access and prestige, she has achieved vast success at a tender age. At 25, just a few years out of Princeton and without a single daily newspaper story under her belt, Shalit is covering some of the city’s most powerful figures, from Sen. CarolMoseley-Braun (D-Ill.) to Democratic strategist Tony Coelho, for national publications. Besides her position as an associate editor at the New Republic, Shalit holds a contract with GQ worth $45,000. And last March, she scored a profile of a major presidential candidate for the cover of the New York Times Magazine—something political reporters with decades more experience covet. Her quick escalation from an intern in the playpen of Republican causes to the putatively unbiased journalism world underlines just how squishy the boundaries of objectivity have become.
In a city where words come cheap and reporters even cheaper, Shalit has speedily outpaced her peers. If H.L. Mencken is journalism’s past, Ruth Leslie Shalit may be its future—a specter that frightens many traditionalists in the news business.
How has she done it? To begin with, Shalit has Maureen Dowd’s knack for telling detail and William Safire’s facility for wordplay. Juicy, arcane tidbits—Bob Dole drinking skim milk, former White House aide David Dreyer listening to Bach—envelop her graceful sentences, each one a lush tree in a well-tended forest. Editors quickly noticed her literary qualities and vaulted Shalit from writing for her monthly college journal to the magazine world’s star system, where establishing a name is tantamount to lifetime tenure. Shalit gave Washington print journalism just what it wanted—smooth, rich pieces, often laced with an icy cynicism and conclusions that never failed to provoke.
But Shalit’s success—and the forcefulness of her arguments regarding the Post—have been tarnished by charges that, in four separate articles, she reprinted the words of other journalists without crediting them. Moreover, at least half of the 28 named Post staffers she interviewed now claim that she presented their quotes inaccurately, incompletely, or both, in order to serve her agenda. The allegations may be forgotten asShalit’s promising career continues, but many fellow reporters in town now regard Shalit as a careless ingenue at best and a pathological plagiarist at worst.
Shalit maintains that she quoted everyone faithfully and in context in the Post story. As for her professional past, Shalit has apologized for the similarities between certain sentences in her pieces and those of other writers, saying that she’s “horrified” by the unauthorized reprints. She doesn’t minimize the gravity of the charges, but says they resulted from honestly mistaking others’ words, downloaded from the news service Lexis-Nexis, for her own notes in computer files. (“I’m a recovering Nexisholic,” she says.) She points out that the copied sentences account for tiny portions of long, otherwise unimpeached articles.
While critics brand her with a scarlet “P” and swipe at her reporting skills, editors of some of the most influential magazines in the country are still lined up to give her work. So who is she? The best journalist in Washington, or the worst? And are her critics well-intentioned truth-seekers or envious colleagues, stung by her fast success and her criticism of the Post, a journalistic sacred cow.
Shalit wasn’t always interested in being a reporter, but political journalism is a good fit, given her past. The daughter of an economics professor and a real estate agent, Shalit grew up discussing politics with her parents; her father, an Israeli immigrant, strongly influenced her views, particularly her economic conservatism.
The elegant writing of the New Yorker drew her interest as early as junior high school, when she first subscribed to the magazine. Growing up in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, Shalit devoured the Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie short stories in the magazine, as well as the essays of Janet Malcolm. Indeed, Malcolm—who has fought battles over her use of disputed quotes—has been a writing inspiration to Shalit, who owns all her books.
“I would always read the short stories and, you know, microanalyze and overinterpret every aspect of them, and…I thought at some point I might be a short-story writer,” Shalit says in a high-pitched voice that has a noticeable tendency to halt, sometimes for long intervals, in the middle of sentences.
Her writing skills developed early. In high school, she won second prize (she thinks) in a contest for the best essay on the separation of U.S. governmental powers. She says the Princeton admissions committee told her they accepted her on the strength of her college essays.
Once at Princeton, she took a writing class with New Yorker essayist John McPhee. Having grown up a “political junkie,” she ended up working for the Sentinel, a tabloid-size opinion magazine with ties to the Madison Center, a conservative organization that counts former Reagan and Bush official William Bennett among its founders. Shalit admits that the Sentinel was conservative in that it poked fun at the excesses of political correctness, but “it wasn’t off the edge of the earth,” she says, partly in response to Anthony Lewis’ portrayal of her as an intolerant social conservative. Shalit says she’s always been socially liberal and economically conservative—a political farrago in perfect New Republic fashion.
The summer before her senior year, Shalit landed an internship in the Bush White House—specifically, at then-Vice President Dan Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness. The council would become the focus of hotly partisan battles, but Shalit says political grunt work bored her. She much preferred hanging out down the hall in the office of James Pinkerton, a public-policy theorist on Bush’s staff.
She and Pinkerton cottoned to each other. “I’m a hopeless fan of hers,” says Pinkerton, now a writer and a lecturer at George Washington University. Though young, “she always had the brains of somebody—the knowledge, the erudition—of someone 10 or 20 years older,” he says. “I always knew she wouldn’t make it in the political world because she was too”—he pauses, searching for a word—“ironic.”
Indeed, Shalit worked for the Bush campaign after graduation, but quickly became disillusioned by the artifice of a presidential race. After Bush lost, Shalit wrote her first article on politics for a national publication—a kiss-and-tell on the campaign published in Reason, a libertarian journal. Writing the Reason piece confirmed that she wanted to use her “amused skepticism” to do political journalism for a living.
Shortly after the campaign, Shalit heard about a vacancy at the New Republic—an internship under Fred Barnes, the conservative writer now at the Weekly Standard. On the advice of Pinkerton and others, Shalit applied for the internship and began a startlingly fast rise at the magazine. Most New Republic interns publish only a handful of pieces in their few months there, but Shalit says she published about one piece every two weeks in her first few months. The internship lasted from January to September 1993, when she was hired as a staffer.
“She’s a lot better than most [interns],” says writer Eric Konigsberg, who interned with Shalit. “She’s really savvy, and she knows what a good story is.”
Shalit also tried hard to impress her editors. One staffer recalled that shortly after starting at the magazine, she constantly praised editor Andrew Sullivan—sucking up so obviously that Sullivan reportedly joked with Shalit, “It won’t work; I’m gay.” Still, Sullivan says he was impressed with Shalit’s writing from the start. When he read her first piece, “I realized we had something here,” he says.
In November 1993, Shalit published a major cover story on Carol Moseley-Braun, the Illinois politician whose escalation to the Senate had won kisses from the national press. Shalit nailed Moseley-Braun for a variety of alleged ethical lapses by building on charges that had been heavily reported in Chicago. Moseley-Braun’s star dimmed considerably, and the story established Shalit as an attack-journalist Wunderkind.
That she was a former Bush campaign staffer now gunning for prominent government officials, many of them Democrats, did not keep other, non-opinion magazines from hiring Shalit. GQ Managing Editor Martin Beiser, in fact, says the Moseley-Braun piece first prompted him to contact Shalit about writing for him. “It was a good profile. She’s a good young writer, and we’re always looking for new talent,” Beiser says.
New York Times Magazine editorial director Adam Moss says he and editor Jack Rosenthal first noticed Shalit in 1994, when then-New Republic executive editor DavidShipley, a former Times writer, mentioned her as a possible Times Magazine reporter. “We said hello, looked at her clips, and we decided to give her a shot,” Moss says. That shot was an October 1994 profile of Robert Bennett, the Washington lawyer representing Bill Clinton. Rosenthal acknowledgesShalit’s Republican background, but says magazine writers must be able “to at least take stances….[A] wholly bloodless objectivity makes for pretty dull magazine writing.” He adds that all writers must be fair to their subjects, a standard he says Shalit has met.
To be sure, as Shalit points out, she has never staked out viciously partisan ground in her writing, preferring clever observations to didactic policy recommendations. And one of her most hilarious pieces dispatched Republican Bret Schundler, mayor of Jersey City, N.J., as a bumbling intellectualwanna-be.
And, of course, Shalit is not alone among magazine writers who have worked in politics. David Gergen, who has advised several presidents and yet always returns to U.S. News & World Report, is the dean of this school of journalism. Shalit is merely its star student.
But this reporting track does not come without its pitfalls. Some journalism watchers blame Shalit’s shoddy attribution and disputed quotes on the crucible in which she was created. “I think one way to look at it is not lax standards of culpability,” says a New Republic writer who asked not to be identified. “It’s more a question of genre—it’s a magazine of opinion, not of investigative reporting….Unless you’re willing to create a whole new apparatus of editors and fact-checkers, things won’t change.”
Shalit rejects such explanations and blames herself entirely. “I’ve had this horrible, idiotic problem, which I’ve fixed,” she says. “The fact is, someone else’s words appeared in my piece. It doesn’t really matter that it was inadvertent.”
Other co-workers agree that her problems have less to do with the magazine and more to do with Shalit’s sloppiness—a kind of carelessness that they say arises from amanic focus on her job. Sort of like Einstein forgetting to tie his shoelaces. “I think that she’s extremely intense,” says one former New Republic staffer. “She can go to great lengths to get a story, like calling people late at night, but she does lose track of things.”
Sullivan says that copying material would be inexcusable anywhere, and that the magazine has sufficiently addressed the charges. “We’re a small journal that’s accountable to its readers. We’ve been accountable in this respect,” he says, referring to having apologized to readers for the lack of attribution.
Those steps aren’t enough for Shalit’s detractors. Chicago Tribune columnist Warren has been particularly aggressive, documenting three cases of copied material in detail, growing more skeptical of Shalit’s claims of unintentional computer snafus each time. “Those transgressions are so grievous—I mean, she would be fired from here,” he says gruffly.
Others have their ears so attuned for resonances between Shalit’s words and others’ that they inevitably find tiny similarities. In a profile of Shalit, the Jewish newspaper the Forward even pointed out the similarity of a 10-word sentence in the Post piece to a little sentence in a David Halberstam book. Whatever the explanation for the other charges of plagiarism, to think that Shalit would copy a sentence in the Post piece, written after the other charges were publicized, is ludicrous. But such is the level of scrutiny that Shalit will likely face in writing her next few pieces.
Shalit might have avoided the intense spotlight if she hadn’t trained her critical skills on fellow reporters. In taking on the Post, Shalit opened her reporting and her career to probing that might not have occurred if her focus had been a politician. That the piece touched raw racial nerves only intensified the furor.
In the 13-page article, Shalit argues that affirmative action has not only caused tension among Post staffers but that the hypersensitivity engendered by the diversity ethos has taken the sharp edge off Post coverage of the city and race relations. Shalit doesn’t directly argue that diversity goals have led to the hiring of unqualified minorities, but she quotes whites—most of them anonymous—who believe so. Shalit doesn’t regret writing the Post piece, but she does believe her public whipping has taken its toll. She very reluctantly granted an interview for this article, hoping to avoid more media attention.
Shalit denies that she misquoted Post staffers or misrepresented their comments in the piece, which she spent about five months reporting. “I think that those comments [about her misreporting quotes] have to be understood in the context of the climate of fear that Leonard Downie has created,” she says. She says Downie “denounced” her personally “and said that nothing in the piece was true. In that charged context, I think it’s understandable that reporters would try to distance themselves from comments that were accurately reported.”
Downie denies that he created an atmosphere of fear after the Shalit piece appeared. “I’m afraid that’s typical of her refusal to take responsibility for her professional conduct,” he says of her charges. He says many Post staffers complained to him about her piece not to curry favor with him but because “they were unhappy about her kind of journalism. I know that I don’t intimidate people here.”
Post staffers privately admit that Downie’s letter to the New Republic, along with one from Post publisher Donald Graham, may have been over the top. But few people at the paper defend Shalit’s piece because Post editors say so much was misreported—including the story about how Metro editor Milton Coleman got his job, biographical details about reporter Douglas Farah, even the physical description of reporter Kevin Merida (whom Shalit inaccurately calls “lanky”). Editors at the paper say they were dumbfounded by the lapses in the story and the fact that she never called them to check the basic facts of many of her anecdotes.
Post editors say a subtle racism informs Shalit’s piece, typified by her assertion that “[i]f editors refuse to adjust their traditional hiring standards, they will end up with a nearly all-white staff.” Shalit says she only meant that the “traditional standards” themselves “fail to capture the full range of merit” and not that most minority reporters aren’t qualified.
Shalit thinks the fallout from the Post piece reveals how acrimonious the American discussion of race has become. “You can’t talk about race without being called a racist,” she says, echoing an old neoconservative complaint. “You can’t talk about a small pool [of qualified reporters] without being accused of saying blacks are inferior.”
Shalit may be guilty of nothing more than revealing what has long been an unspeakable fact of journalistic life in Washington, and it makes sense that the New Republic, an established rock-thrower, stepped up on the story. But the magazine may have erred by allowing a reporter whose career has picked up so many dents to face down other reporters.
Still, Shalit is not alone among reporters charged with plagiarism whose careers have emerged intact, nor is she alone among reporters who lift (accidentally or not) ever-more-accessible information. “I think plagiarism is probably rampant, particularly among a lot of young, even talented people,” says Tribune reporter Warren. “I mean, this is heady stuff—they’re writing cover stories for big-time magazines at 23, 24, 25 years old….Probably older folks are a little more astute about it, and take from less public sources, and just don’t get caught.”
It all amounts to a nightmare comeuppance for Shalit—perhaps retribution for never having to undergo a journalistic adolescence of traffic stories and obituaries. She’s working on a new piece, about Congress, which she will now cover regularly. “I’m a young journalist who’s made some mistakes and is very chastened and flustered and is going to overreach in the other direction,” she says. That means “bending over backwards to make sure every piece I write is clean as a whistle.”
Shalit is, of course, neither Washington’s best nor its worst journalist. But she may be the most visible casualty of the city’s desire for well-told, sizzling stories. The real culprit here may be the current mores of magazine journalism, which is often more interested in forceful wording and fluid writing than spick-and-span reporting. For Shalit, however, such explanations aren’t as important as the future. “What happened is a very serious business, but it doesn’t cast doubt on my basic values as a reporter,” she says. “I look forward to doing a bunch of totally boring, staid, 1,200-word pieces that are factually triple-edited.”