A refresher: On Dec. 18, the Times announced editor’s notes attached to “Caliphate” to warn readers that the prize-winning series’s central character appeared to have lied about his history of gory terrorism under the banner of the Islamic State. The paper reassigned the series’s star host, reporter Rukmini Callimachi, and returned the Peabody Award that “Caliphate” had won.
But as NPR’s David Folkenflik reported on Dec. 24, there were some wrinkles in the presentation. Michael Barbaro, host of “The Daily” — the celebrated news podcast that shares some staffing with “Caliphate” — badgered journalists on Twitter to soften their coverage of the podcast’s demise. And when Barbaro interviewed with Executive Editor Dean Baquet for “The Daily" about the “Caliphate” retraction, Barbaro didn’t disclose multiple ethical conflicts, including the fact that he is engaged to be married to Lisa Tobin, executive producer of “Caliphate” and executive producer of audio at the Times.
Those considerations surfaced in the Monday letter from the Public Radio Program Directors Association (PRPD), signed by more than 20 public radio stations that rebroadcast “The Daily" for their listeners. The letter states, in part, “We feel Barbaro’s actions are in direct conflict with our ethical guidelines and they call his general credibility into question.”
In his reply, Dolnick wrote that the Barbaro-Baquet discussion was merely an “an audio version of our editors’ note, not an accountability interview, which [Baquet] had already given to NPR. With that understanding, we did not see a need to make reference to [Barbaro’s] relationship with Lisa Tobin, the Executive Producer of the Audio team.” As for Barbaro’s social media activities, Dolnick wrote, “Michael deeply regrets that. Editors have discussed their expectations with him going forward.”
Another focus of the public-radio letter is Andy Mills, an audio producer at the Times who played a central role in “Caliphate." As noted by this blog on Friday, Mills jumped to the Times from WNYC’s Radiolab, where he triggered complaints for mistreatment of female colleagues. Even though Callimachi was reassigned, Mills was allowed to host “The Daily” just a few days after the “Caliphate” retraction — an event that prompted condemnations from peers in the audio sector. From the stations’ letter:
Many public media companies are undergoing massive shifts in the culture of our workplaces and many have made public statements about their own commitments to meaningful and measurable change. From an optics perspective, we feel your decision was not just tone-deaf, but blind to the current landscape in which we now exist. It stands in opposition to the actions we have taken to ensure that our organizations have pathways for advancement for ALL employees, not just those of a privileged class. The times are changing and yet based on this decision, it appears that The Times is not changing along with them.
You also referenced allegations of Andy Mills’ misconduct, which we take very seriously. We thoroughly review all complaints received, and will take any appropriate corrective action. We’ve been asked why “The Daily” ran an episode featuring Andy, who was a producer on “Caliphate,” so soon after the editors’ note. The timing of that episode was a mistake and sent an unintended signal that undermined the gravity of the “Caliphate” editors’ note. The episode, the first in a two-week package of programming scheduled to air over the holidays, had been pre-recorded and previously scheduled for that day. In light of “Caliphate,” we should have changed plans.
The PRPD released its letter on Monday night; the Times shared Dolnick’s reply with the Erik Wemple Blog just after 9 a.m. Tuesday morning. The speedy work suggests that Times wanted to show the stations that it hears them. In early 2018, the Times reached an agreement with American Public Media (APM) to distribute “The Daily” to public-radio stations around the country. “It just makes sense that Michael Barbaro and The Daily would come to public radio,” an APM executive told Current at the time.
Per that distribution agreement, 288 stations carry “The Daily,” which adds up to a weekly audience of more than 1.5 million listeners, according to APM’s Kelly Reller. The stations don’t pay a separate fee to air “The Daily,” which is included in APM’s affiliation package. In a statement on the controversy, APM declared, in part, “We deliver trusted programming to listeners across the country, and when that trust is shaken, we have a responsibility to ensure it is addressed. We are optimistic that our communication between the New York Times, PRPD, and our station partners continues a dialogue so that we further our collective work addressing journalistic principles and inequities in the workplace while serving audiences.”
With more than 1,700 journalists, the New York Times is a colossus. When a large project like “Caliphate” collapses, accordingly, it leaves behind a lot of awkward and painstaking management chores. And since the Times is the Times, there are readers, critics and business partners around to make sure those chores are done properly.