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Opinion Collapse of ‘Caliphate’ podcast brings scrutiny to NYT producer Andy Mills

FILE - The New York Times building in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
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The New York Times announced the retraction of pivotal episodes of its hit 2018 podcast “Caliphate” just a week before Christmas. It placed editor’s notes bailing on the central character in the 12-part series, a Canadian man named Shehroze Chaudhry, who’d told star Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi that he had committed murderous acts of terrorism as a member of the Islamic State. Turns out, Chaudhry was fabricating the whole thing. The newspaper assigned Callimachi to a new beat, returned its Peabody Award and, perhaps, thought it had left the disaster behind,squarely in 2020.

It didn’t work.

Following the “Caliphate” announcement, the Times has fielded questions and complaints, many of them on Twitter, zeroing in on its hands-off treatment of audio producer Andy Mills, who served as storytelling partner to Callimachi. Just days after the retraction, Mills and Bianca Giaever presented a podcast about radio host Delilah on the franchise Times platform “The Daily.”

The developments prompted former colleagues of Mills to tweet about their experiences with him, many of them relating to Mills’s stint working on Radiolab, a WNYC podcast under the corporate roof of New York Public Radio. The comments prompted Radiolab to issue on Thursday an extraordinary note admitting its failures in supervising Mills, who left for the Times in 2016 after four years at the organization. “The Radiolab team wants to say to the people who were hurt, to anyone who has ever felt unwelcome at our show, and to the industry we helped shape: we are listening,” reads the statement, in part. “We hate that this happened and we apologize to those we failed. At the time, show leadership initiated a response from WNYC to address Andy’s behavior, but it didn’t happen fast enough and it didn’t do enough.”

The organization’s lament gets heavier: “We can’t change the past, but we can promise you that we are all holding this show, and each other, accountable for making sure that no person has to experience anything like that again.”

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“Anything like that” apparently includes the possibility of someone pouring a glass of beer on your head. Kelsey Padgett, who worked at Radiolab, said in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog that, one evening, she joined Mills and other co-workers after work for drinks. When conversation turned to favorite karaoke songs, Mills said his was “Walking in Memphis.” Padgett said in the email that when she called the song a “hipster” choice, Mills “then poured the remainder of the beer he was drinking over my head. I don’t remember the immediate aftermath, but I do know that one (possibly two) of my female coworkers forced him to apologize to me. I remember trying to laugh it off and that I felt embarrassed that my coworker forced him to apologize.”

Another indignity related to Padgett’s qualifications. Mills was close to a Radiolab intern who was competing against Padgett for a full-time position; Padgett prevailed. “When I got the job, Andy went around telling people that I did not deserve the position (over the other candidate, a man) and that I was hired only because I was a woman and the decision was made to fill a ‘quota,’ ” writes Padgett. Other sources confirmed the account. Reached by phone, Mills declined to answer questions from the Erik Wemple Blog.

More routine offenses by Mills included “speaking over female coworkers, rephrasing others’ ideas as his own, bad mouthing others’ ideas and work, etc.,” notes Padgett.

Jamison York, Mills’s former boss at Radiolab, tweeted recently, “One of my biggest professional regrets is that I couldn’t interrupt [Mills’s] will to power while I supervised him at Radiolab. I saw the ways he used the show as a means to mistreat people and insulate himself from the consequences.”

The Erik Wemple Blog isn’t breaking news with anecdotes of Mills’s work history. In a 2018 piece for the Cut, Boris Kachka documented a years-long tolerance of sexual harassment by WNYC leadership. A section of the piece focuses on allegations of Mills’s tendency to hit on female colleagues and issue “unsolicited back rubs.” WNYC wrote up a report and Mills received a reprimand, which he signed, according to Kachka. Mills’s bosses suggested that he seek work elsewhere, though he denied that account to Kachka.

Again, according to Kachka, WNYC did not tell the Times about the internal complaint against Mills because of human-resources restrictions. In any case, Lisa Tobin, the Times’s executive producer for audio, told the Cut that the WNYC human-resources report had been a source of “shame” for Mills. “He has successfully worked with and for women inside an audio department that is predominantly female — a close-knit and deeply collaborative team,” said Tobin in 2018.

In a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog, Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha notes:

Responsibility for “Caliphate” lies with the institution, as our executive editor Dean Baquet has said, as well as with the reporter, the producers and the audio team. We are evaluating how we provide support for investigative audio journalism as well as the next assignments for producers and reporters of Caliphate.
We take allegations of misconduct seriously. We thoroughly review all complaints received, and take any necessary corrective action. As a general matter of policy, we do not comment about actions taken to address complaints.
We are committed to fostering a workplace culture that is fair and respectful for all employees. It is essential to fulfilling our journalistic mission

We asked Rhoades Ha whether the ongoing evaluation of “next assignments” for “Caliphate” producers and reporters means that Mills could receive the same treatment as Callimachi. The Times, responded Rhoades Ha, is sticking with its statement. In November 2017, the Times suspended prominent political reporter Glenn Thrush after Vox alleged instances of sexual misconduct at Thrush’s previous employer, Politico. Thrush later returned to the Times’s pages, though he was removed from covering the White House.

Mills grew up in Louisville, Ill., and has said he never expected to land at his current station. In an emotional speech accepting the newspaper’s Peabody Award for “Caliphate,” he said, his voice breaking, “On a personal note, I grew up in the middle of nowhere. It was never a sure bet I would even go to college. I definitely never thought I would work at the New York Times or be here accepting an award on their behalf.”

That’s his style. Mills traveled with Callimachi to Iraq to document, among other things, the 2017 liberation of Mosul from the grip of the Islamic State. Reflecting on his travels with Callimachi, Mills commented during a 2019 interview, “I’m definitely more of an emoter. I found it beautiful and moving to be in the places we were in, and got caught up in my emotions quite a bit.”

He couched the “Caliphate” interview with Chaudhry — known in the series by his alleged nom de guerre “Abu Huzayfah” — in similar terms. “I never thought I would be sitting in a room getting emotional with a member of ISIS as they explained doing something that I think is rather despicable and yet, like, here we were having this amazing experience,” said Mills at a May 2018 event at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Those comments help explain why “Caliphate” blew past warning signs en route to a colossal journalistic failure: Chaudhry’s story was just too perfect. In Chapter 5, he describes carrying out an execution of a man in an orange jumpsuit. “I had to stab him multiple times. And then we put him up on a cross. And I had to leave the dagger in his heart,” says Chaudhry in the podcast. He has been charged in Canada with fabricating his entire story.

The journalistic nadir of “Caliphate” arrives in Chapter 6, when the Times reporters reveal a problem with Chaudhry’s Islamic State timeline. To his credit, Mills raises the possibility that Chaudhry is running an elaborate scam. Yet the team talks itself out of that prospect: “But if this turns out to be some sort of fantasy that he’s living out, this is the most strange and profound fantasy I’ve ever heard of,” says Mills. From there, “Caliphate” outfits Chaudhry with a brand-new timeline, with Mills’s active participation. Looking over the dates, Mills says to his colleagues, “So that puts it there, right here. That lines up. That actually lines up, right here. . . . That theory would answer a lot of questions.”

A Times investigation of Chaudhry’s activities revealed that Canadian officials are “confident” that Chaudhry “did not enter Syria or join ISIS, much less commit the grievous crimes he described.”

A separate story from the Times media desk examined the internal handling of “Caliphate" and the fallout. It noted that Callimachi’s byline hadn’t appeared in the paper since the Times began reviewing “Caliphate” in late September. “She’s going to take on a new beat, and she and I are discussing possibilities,” Executive Editor Dean Baquet says in the article. “I think it’s hard to continue covering terrorism after what happened with this story. But I think she’s a fine reporter.” There was no such discussion of Mills’s future, though the piece did note his role in conceiving “Caliphate.” Mills has assisted with “The Daily,” the Times’s celebrated morning podcast, as well as “Rabbit Hole,” which explores how the Internet is “reshaping humankind’s perception of reality.”

In her remarks at the Commonwealth Club, Callimachi said that Mills pitched the idea of a serialized podcast featuring her work on terrorism in his “intake interview." At the same event, Mills said, “My initial pitch of, like, what we’re going to do is, like, the five questions that everyone needs to know about ISIS, like, who are they, what do they believe, why would anyone join them? I laid out this big pitch of like, this is how it’ll all work, and then we did that interview. . . . I’m very good at pitching."

On Dec. 23, Briana Breen, a San Francisco-based audio producer, tweeted about a dinner that she’d attended with Callimachi, Mills and others just after the “Caliphate” team completed editing the series. “The things that Andy said about Rukmini to me alone and in front of the other non-NYT people when he thought [Rukmini] and their NYT colleague were out of earshot were the worst things I’ve ever heard anyone say about someone they work with," wrote Breen. “Andy claimed all credit for the success of both Caliphate and The Daily.”

Mills has made his way in audio by pushing for narrative perfection. “From a young age, I always liked stories, whether in the form of books, movies, or stories that the preacher told on Sundays in the church I grew up in,” said Mills in a 2019 interview. “Later in life, I realized you could get paid if you were good at telling stories, which is still an idea that fascinates me.” His own narrative arc has now attracted notice from colleagues and peers: He is accused of abusing and belittling women at his former job, has moved up to an exciting and entrepreneurial gig at the Times, played a key role in a series that collapsed — and moved right along.

Journalists at the Times have raised concerns about this sequence of events. Those concerns, according to a source at the paper, have reached the upper levels of the Times, where they belong.

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The ‘Caliphate’ retraction won’t end the New York Times’s woes