In December 2014, renowned terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi unearthed what appeared to be a striking scoop. Syrian journalist Louai Abo Aljoud, Callimachi reported, had glimpsed three American hostages while he, too, was being held at an Islamic State facility in 2013. Upon further inspection, however, key details failed to bear out, resulting in an editor’s note affixed to the story on Friday.

“After the article was published, The Times learned that Mr. Aljoud had given inconsistent accounts of key elements of the episode to Times journalists and others,” reads the note, in part.

Following publication of the editor’s note, Karam Shoumali, a Syrian journalist who worked with Callimachi on the story, tweeted:

The tweet stands as evidence that as early as late 2014, less than a year after Callimachi jumped from the Associated Press to the New York Times, colleagues were expressing concerns about her methods and conclusions (Shoumali spoke at greater length with New York Times’ Ben Smith for a media column published in October).

Those warnings boomeranged on the newspaper’s management in late September, when Canadian authorities charged Shehroze Chaudhry, who had been a focal point of the Callimachi-hosted 2018 Times podcast “Caliphate,” for allegedly carrying out a terrorism hoax. The possibility that the star of “Caliphate” was fabricating his past prompted the Times to conduct an investigation of the 12-part series, concluding Friday in the retraction of the episodes centered on Chaudhry, who was identified on the podcast by his alleged nom de guerre, “Abu Huzayfah.”

The Times’s presentation of its investigative findings on “Caliphate” appeared to be a model of journalistic transparency: Executive Editor Dean Baquet did an interview with NPR’s David Folkenflik as well as with Michael Barbaro, who hosts the newspaper’s flagship podcast, “The Daily.” An editor’s note atop “Caliphate” admitted the collapse of key episodes. “In the absence of firmer evidence, ‘Caliphate’ should have been substantially revised to exclude the material related to Mr. Chaudhry. The podcast as a whole should not have been produced with Mr. Chaudhry as a central narrative character,” reads the note, in part.

“This failing isn’t about any one reporter. I think this was an institutional failing,” said Baquet in his chat with Barbaro.

Several Times journalists who had long ago alerted their superiors to problems with Callimachi’s reporting felt that the Times’s mea culpa contained a gap: Where was the pointed acknowledgment that “Caliphate” was a wreck several years in the making? Sure, the editor’s note cited editorial breakdowns in the vetting of the podcast series. But why not admit that editors shunted aside complaints about Callimachi long before assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick approached Callimachi about making a podcast on the Islamic State?

Those journalists had reason to believe such an admission was afoot. On Thursday, top editors at the Times presided over a meeting with staffers who had worked with Callimachi over the years. Multiple sources who attended the meeting described it as a painful affair in which masthead officials acknowledged lapses in management and their subordinates blasted them for not acting on their flares.

Particularly outspoken was C.J. Chivers, a former foreign correspondent and now a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine. Chivers was among the first Times reporters to channel his worries to editors at the paper. For his presentation at the Thursday meeting, Chivers spoke from prepared remarks. He said: “Warnings were not just dead letters. They became a basis to impugn people personally and professionally.”

His audience included Baquet, managing editor Joe Kahn and assistant managing editor for international Michael Slackman. Other attendees included current and former Middle East correspondents and several reporters from the paper’s Washington bureau, who had collaborated frequently with Callimachi on terrorism stories.

Based on the interviews of the Erik Wemple Blog, Chivers was speaking for several of his colleagues when he said, “You discouraged people from using the fire alarm, and when some of us did use the fire alarm anyhow, we found the alarm was not connected to anything.” Chivers sounded more hurt than angry, said one attendee. He told the group that the experiences of the Middle East correspondents over the past five years have been “like losing faith in a church.”

This wasn’t an argumentative session. Top editors treated it as a listening exercise, with some regret mixed in. Slackman, according to sources, apologized directly to two staffers who had complained about Callimachi’s work. Kahn over the course of the week had held private and apologetic chats with staffers over the same issue. Some attendees at the session appeared on the verge of tears, recalled one participant.

Staffers had a great deal to say. One objected that Callimachi’s work had embraced stereotypes of Muslims and that if the newspaper had treated African Americans in the same way, the Times would have much bigger problems. A staffer from the Washington bureau noted that a masthead official had warned journalists in the capital to independently verify Callimachi’s contributions to collaborative stories. Another gripe: Washington reporters were commonly hauled in at the 11th hour to buttress reporting in Callimachi’s stories. Such a scenario occurred in Chapter 6 of “Caliphate,” when three D.C. reporters were drafted to press U.S. officials on the alleged activities of Abu Huzayfah.

Sources attending the meeting emphasize that there was no attempt to seek Callimachi’s dismissal. The point, rather, was to extract a commitment from management that it would listen to staffers’ concerns more carefully in the future. Eric Schmitt, a Washington-based reporter, stressed that Callimachi was a talented and driven reporter, but one who required editorial supervision. An editor present at the meeting took notes on suggestions from staffers, and he read them back to the group at the end of the session.

A well-placed source at the Times in 2018 described staffers’ complaints about Callimachi to the Erik Wemple Blog: “There is some internal and external griping about certain elements of Rukmini’s reporting — I’m not going to deny that. She’s a classic giant personality. … She’s very good at describing her work and taking credit for it and living the risk. There are some people on staff who don’t like that,” said the source.

That’s precisely the sentiment that has so unsettled Callimachi’s colleagues — that their gripes have centered on personality, professional jealousy and other such trifles. No: They were citing problems with the work — the same problems, by the way, that sank “Caliphate.”

In response to an inquiry about the meeting, Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha emailed this statement: “Senior editors met with more than a dozen reporters to provide a forum for attendees to speak uninterrupted and relate their own experiences and concerns, which varied widely.” Ha also pointed out that Baquet had told NPR that the review had found other mistakes in Callimachi’s work, but nothing on the level of “Caliphate.”

An email to staffers from Baquet and Kahn on Friday channeled the voices from Thursday’s meeting. Its key paragraphs:

The responsibility for the mistakes in “Caliphate” stretched beyond any single department, reporter or editor, and this is not the place to discuss personnel matters. But ensuring the accuracy and rigor of all our journalism, no matter the medium, is ultimately the duty of the newsroom’s senior leaders. There was a breakdown here, and we are working hard to make sure that going forward all our high-stakes journalism has the support and scrutiny it requires.
Our internal review did find factual shortcomings in a small number of other ISIS articles, which are being addressed with corrections and editor’s notes that will appear on each article and here on our regular corrections page. More generally, we recognize that we need to work harder to establish clear channels for anyone who has concerns about our coverage to express them. We need to enlist colleagues with the most knowledge and on-the-ground experience to inform our most ambitious journalism from start to finish.

We also asked the Times about staffers’ concern that management didn’t properly acknowledge a multiyear lapse in overseeing Callimachi’s work. The memo to staff, responds Ha, “speaks to the problems and the long term solutions.”

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