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ONE OF THE MANY THEMES that emerged from John Cloud’s piece on New Republic plagiarist, Ruth Shalit (“Baby Ruth,” 10/20) is that of supposedly “brilliant” editors being bamboozled or even lied to by young, ambitious journalists obsessed with making it to the top without going through the rigors of apprenticeship.
Here a couple of ironies seem to have escaped Cloud. For one, the Shalit case bears a strong resemblance to the infamous Janet Cooke situation at the Washington Post a few years ago, in which the “legendary” Ben Bradlee pushed a twentysomething reporter toward a Pulitzer Prize, only to discover that the “story” which led to her award was totally fabricated. Shalit, in taking on an investigative report on racial tensions in the Post newsroom, may not have been quite as blatant as Cooke, befitting a girl who was weaned on New Yorker ironists Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Janet Malcolm, but her accumulation of distortions and alterations of quotes puts her right up there with the duplicitous New-New-Journalists who play fast and loose with the facts in order to make a big splash in the trendy intellectual journals.
Another irony that Cloud might well have looked into is the similarities between the careers of Ruth Shalit and her backer, New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan. Mainly, both were catapulted into prestigious positions prematurely. Sullivan, for reasons that are still couched in mystery, was named editor of TNR at age 30, based on his having been awarded a Ph.D. at Harvard and having had zero experience in the real world of highbrow journalism. Shalit’s avoidance of working in the journalistic trenches is public knowledge. It is therefore understandable that Sullivan, being wet behind the ears himself in terms of journalistic and worldly experience, would be taken in by a young, inexperienced staffer with grandiose ideas about power and prestige. In fact, even before the Shalit debacle, Sullivan demonstrated his vulnerability when he gave oodles of space to Douglas Coupland, a Generation X “genius” specializing in postmodern gibberish. Sullivan thinks that this guy is great and will apparently publish anything that Coupland submits to him.
Although, as Cloud properly states, Shalit is responsible for her own journalistic transgressions, I think that he let Sullivan off the hook too easily. After all, Sullivan was confronted not with a minimalist think-piece, but with a massive, 13,000-word inflammatory exposé by a kid. One can only wonder if anything went through his head when he announced, “All right, let’s go with it.”