The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a celebrated podcast faces internal review, the New York Times once again becomes the story

The New York Times is facing questions surrounding “Caliphate,” its 2018 award-winning podcast series. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)

At first, “Caliphate” was a triumph for the New York Times. The 10-part podcast series following terrorism correspondent Rukmini Callimachi as she revealed the dark nature of the Islamic State and the zealotry of its members earned her a Pulitzer finalist citation and the Times its first Peabody audio award.

The podcast was what “longform audio reporting can and should sound like,” wrote the Peabody jury.

But nearly two years later, the arrest of one of “Caliphate’s” central characters has set in motion a troubling new chapter for Callimachi and the Times. The newspaper said it was beginning a review of its ambitious podcast from one of its star reporters, and on Sunday the organization’s own media columnist took aim at the reporting and editing decisions of Callimachi’s work.

The key issue for “Caliphate” is the veracity of the story told by Shehroze Chaudhry, who went by the alias Abu Huzayfah in the podcast and described his participation in barbaric acts, including two executions of hostages while an Islamic State member in Syria in 2014.

Last month, Canadian authorities arrested Chaudhry, a Canadian citizen, for allegedly concocting terrorist activities in media interviews, including those he described on “Caliphate.”

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His arrest “raised new and important questions about him and his motivations,” said Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha. The media organization was “undertaking a fresh examination of his history and the way we presented him in our series.” She declined further comment about the review. Callimachi declined to comment, but said in a tweet that she welcomed her newspaper’s “effort to re-examine the story of Abu Huzayfah.”

The issues facing “Caliphate” are the latest in a string of recent controversies involving the Times’s reporting and editing. While the newspaper has long been the subject of criticism from its rarefied perch in American journalism, recent months have seen internal objections made public, lending an air of a journalistic demolition derby to the proceedings.

Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens — himself the subject of controversy — wrote a lengthy column this weekend condemning the Times’s vaunted “1619 Project,” while another controversial op-ed writer, Bari Weiss, quit the paper this summer and publicly complained that she was the victim of “a hostile work environment.” A notable dispute this summer led to the resignation of the editorial page editor, James Bennet, who had been considered one of the leading contenders to succeed Executive Editor Dean Baquet. Now questions surrounding “Caliphate” seem to have damaged the succession prospects of other senior editors at the newspaper.

With “Caliphate,” the Times’s media columnist Ben Smith published a piece this weekend that went beyond the news of Chaudry’s arrest and review of the podcast, to critique Callimachi’s work and decisions made by her superiors. “While some of the coverage has portrayed her as a kind of rogue actor at The Times, my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support,” Smith concluded.

Controversy surrounding “Caliphate” started as it began airing in April 2018, prompting a fierce debate in Canada about the threat of terrorism and criticism over the government’s alleged inaction. “This guy is apparently in Toronto. Canadians deserve more answers from this government,” said one House of Commons member.

Huzayfah had been telling Canadian media outlets a different tale, too. In one September 2017 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., he mentions acts of violence he witnessed but didn’t say anything about carrying out executions. He then told the CBC in May 2018 that he made up the murder claim in “Caliphate,” explaining “I was being childish. I was describing what I saw and basically, I was close enough to think it was me.”

Callimachi responded in Canadian media, saying she interviewed him in 2016 before the Canadian government contacted him, after which she said he began to change his story. “He was speaking to us in this window of time when he essentially thought that he had slipped through the cracks,” she told the CBC in 2018.

“Caliphate” delved into questions about Huzayfah in the sixth chapter of its 10 episodes — an episode that was published several days after the CBC had questioned the series. The episode details efforts to fact-check Huzayfah’s account, and concludes that he had misled the Times about the timeline of his radicalization and his travel dates to Syria.

The New York Times has its hands full with review of ‘Caliphate’

The Times defended the podcast in its initial statements after Huzayfah’s arrest last month. It said “the uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story is central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him.” Days later, however, the Times seemingly reversed course and said it would review the podcast.

“Rukmini is a brave and talented reporter whose body of work has shed new light on how ISIS functioned, attracted recruits, and stayed in power,” the Times said in a statement to news outlets last week. “As with all of our journalism, when we make a mistake we endeavor to correct it.”

Reporting on terrorism is a challenging exercise that often involves dealing with nefarious and untrustworthy sources and at times venturing into dangerous terrain.

Callimachi’s defenders have said that her reporting on ISIS have been a crucial contribution in better understanding the group, and that fact-checking terrorists is an inherently fraught endeavor.

But questions have previously been raised about Callimachi’s work and methods.

Her Pulitzer citation in 2019 also cited her work on “The ISIS Files,” a text and audio project exploring how ISIS held power and made possible by some 15,000 documents she retrieved from Iraq. Scholars disapproved of her removal of the documents from Iraq, and the government demanded an apology from the paper and the return of the files. The Times said the documents, now archived at George Washington University in Washington, were transferred under the supervision of Iraqi security forces and customs officials.

In 2014, the Times published a story by Callimachi that described a Syrian captive of ISIS who said he saw American hostages and warned American government officials, to no avail. Facing questions from a Syrian journalist who assisted Callimachi on the story, the Times sent another journalist to Turkey to re-interview her subject, Smith detailed in his media column, noting that the international editor at the time continues to stand by the story.

“Looking back, I wish I had added more attribution so that readers could know the steps I took to corroborate details of his account,” Callimachi told Smith.

Michael Foley, the brother of James Foley, an American journalist executed by Islamic State operatives in Syria in 2014, has publicly denounced Callimachi’s reporting on his death. Foley insisted the Times correct its reporting on the nature of his brother’s torture at the hands of militants and supposed conversion to Islam. “She left our family with a lot of pain from her un-professionalism and lies,” he told the Daily Beast.

The Times stood by Callimachi’s reporting on Foley’s death, and senior editors answered questions about it in a column by then-public editor Margaret Sullivan (now a media columnist at The Post). “Probably more than anyone, I pushed Rukmini to do these stories,” Baquet, the executive editor, told Sullivan at the time.

For now, the Times is conducting its review of the content and production of “Caliphate,” as Canadian officials press forward with their case. “Hoaxes can generate fear within our communities and create the illusion there is a potential threat to Canadians, while we have determined otherwise,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superintendent Christopher deGale said in a statement.

Chaudry is due in court Nov. 16.

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