September 29, 1995
Don't Quote Me

Truth or dare

The strange case of Ruth Shalit and the Washington Post

by Dan Kennedy

Ruth Shalit is smart, talented, and her own worst enemy.

The 24-year-old New Republic writer last week produced a controversial, highly detailed piece on affirmative-action woes at the Washington Post, then undermined her thesis with what she admits were "a handful of unfortunate but minor inaccuracies" and "one major error."

In so doing, Shalit short-circuited what could have been a major contribution to the debate over affirmative action, a burning issue everywhere from the presidential-campaign trail to Boston Latin School.

During a brief interview on Tuesday, Shalit did not elaborate on her "major error": her assertion that a DC contractor who'd never been indicted had served a prison sentence for corruption. She cut the interview short, citing a pressing deadline.

But Shalit did find time to make more trouble for herself, charging that Post media reporter Howard Kurtz "misquoted" her in a piece he wrote on the brouhaha on September 21.

Kurtz quoted Shalit as saying that "the ethos of diversity is ultimately on a collision course with the ethos of newspapering." Shalit told the Phoenix that she spoke of "sensitivity" rather than "diversity," adding, "That makes a big difference."

Kurtz reacted with outrage.

"I would respond to that by saying that is a blatant lie," he said. "I can't believe she's telling you that." Kurtz said Shalit left him a voice-mail message after his piece had already gone to press, in which she said she wished she'd used the phrase "ethos of sensitivity."

To support his defense, Kurtz produced the transcript of a CNN program on which both he and Shalit appeared. According to the transcript, host Bernard Kalb read the quote back to Shalit, and Shalit responded that "what I really meant by that was that the ethos of diversity, meaning really the ethos of sensitivity: offend no one."

"I'm just stunned," Kurtz said of Shalit's claim that he misquoted her. "Nobody's ever accused me of that before."

Serious concerns

The shame of it is that Shalit's exceedingly ambitious piece, a 13,000-word cover story headlined THE WASHINGTON POST IN BLACK & WHITE, raised some serious concerns that have been lost in the post-publication furor.

Shalit told of bitter white reporters who believed, mistakenly in some instances, that their careers were languishing because of their race. Of minority journalists who resented being thought of as quota hires no matter how talented or accomplished they were. Of humiliating sensitivity workshops at which people were forced to wear signs that say LAUGH AT ME or IGNORE ME. ("I find the whole idea juvenile and offensive," one reporter allegedly told Shalit. "If someone tells me to put on a sign like that, I'll tell them to shove it up their ass.")

Even Kurtz concedes that her story "absolutely raised some important issues about journalism."

Those issues, though, have been obscured by the piece's supposed shortcomings.

In a three-page letter to the New Republic, a copy of which was provided to the Phoenix, Leonard Downie, the Post's executive editor, charged that the article "demonstrates a shameful absence of journalistic standards on the part of The New Republic and Shalit herself."

Among Downie's charges: Shalit misquoted a number of Post staffers named in her article; made numerous factual errors, such as mistakenly claiming that certain jobs at the paper are reserved for black employees; and was "maliciously hurtful" to a number of black employees. Most prominent among these was assistant managing editor Milton Coleman, whom Shalit portrayed as a sensitivity cop who's kept some negative stories about Mayor Marion Barry and other African-American leaders out of the paper.

Downie also wrote that Shalit "has twice been caught committing plagiarism in the pages of The New Republic."

Downie's letter, as well as Shalit's response, will be published in next week's New Republic.

Shalit continues to insist that her piece was essentially accurate. In some of the instances Downie cites, she says, people at the Post provided her with inaccurate information. In far more instances, she charges, people are running away from their quotes in response to Downie's furious reaction.

As for the plagiarism incidents, Shalit says that her practice of carelessly combining downloaded magazine articles with her notes into "big, sloppy files" on her computer led her, on two occasions, accidentally to pass off short passages from other people's work as her own.

"I'm not saying it's excusable, or that I'm proud of it," she says. "I'm not."

Meteoric rise

In media portrayals, Shalit comes off as Dinesh D'Souza in a skirt, a poster girl for the kind of conservatives who aren't above bending the truth to advance their agenda. Shalit objects to this image, insisting that she's not opposed to affirmative action. "It's just that the Post is going about it in a weird way," she says.

Before this, Shalit's rise had been meteoric. A native of Wisconsin, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton in 1992 and has written for both GQ and the New York Times Magazine, in addition to the New Republic. Now she's fighting for her professional life.

"The Post is really piling on," she says. "I'm feeling a little beleaguered here."

You can't help but feel sympathetic. The Post has clearly overreacted, and parts of Downie's vitriolic letter read like an attempt to shout down legitimate concerns Shalit has raised.

But you also can't help but think her career might have been better served if she'd spent a couple of years covering city-council meetings and fires before bursting onto the national scene.

It's not just a matter of learning some humility. It's a matter of learning something about her craft.