The New York Times building in 2011. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
Media critic

In August 2017, the New York Times announced the hiring of Margaret Coker to helm its Baghdad bureau. “There is a reason The New York Times has remained committed to covering Iraq while many other news organizations have closed their bureaus: The American invasion in 2003 eroded public trust in government, destabilized the Middle East, internationalized the jihadi footprint, weakened American influence abroad and took the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis – along with 4,424 Americans,” noted the paper’s announcement.

Fourteen months later, the newspaper has issued a less verbose announcement. “Margaret Coker has left The New York Times.  This is an internal personnel matter and at this time we cannot comment further,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog on Wednesday.

This is not how the Times usually manages transitions in international hot spots.

According to an email viewed by the Erik Wemple Blog, Coker told peers on the Middle East beat on Oct. 1 that she would not be “dealing with work issues for the foreseeable future.” Before arriving at the Times, she worked for the Wall Street Journal as Turkey bureau chief.

So what happened? Officials at the Times don’t care to engage on this question.

According to sources, however, Coker’s departure was preceded by a fracas relating to her work with fellow Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who joined the paper in 2014 and has become a brand name via coverage of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The dispute relates to Callimachi’s work in Iraq, the sources say, though details are scarce at this point. The Times, according to sources, has sunk a fair bit of managerial effort into sorting out the goings-on.

Efforts to secure comment from Coker have been unsuccessful.

This April, the Times under Callimachi’s byline produced an investigation titled “The ISIS Files,” based on 15,000 pages of documents that she’d collected during five trips to Iraq. The findings shed new light on just how the Islamic State ran its far-flung caliphate. Prominent in the story was the case of Ibrahim Muhammad Khalil, who 14 when he was arrested in 2015 by Islamic State police for “laughing during prayer.” The reason cited for his arrest was “The propagation of virtue and prevention of vice.” Following publication of the investigation, the Times faced ethical questions about the removal of the documents from sites abandoned by the Islamic State. It answered them in a Q-and-A with Callimachi and international editor Michael Slackman.

On Wednesday, the Erik Wemple Blog emailed Callimachi for an interview. She declined, saying she was getting ready for a trip.

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