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The New York Times could not verify ISIS claims in its ‘Caliphate’ podcast. Now it’s returning a prestigious award.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/18/2020 Elahe Izadi, Paul Farhi
a smiling man and woman posing for a picture: Andy Mills, left, and Rukmini Callimachi hold the award for their 2018 podcast “Caliphate” at the 78th annual Peabody Awards in New York in May 2019. The New York Times has now placed an editor’s note on the podcast acknowledging falsehoods in the central character’s story. © Brad Barket/Invision/AP Andy Mills, left, and Rukmini Callimachi hold the award for their 2018 podcast “Caliphate” at the 78th annual Peabody Awards in New York in May 2019. The New York Times has now placed an editor’s note on the podcast acknowledging falsehoods in the central character’s story.

The New York Times acknowledged Friday that a celebrated podcast that featured a would-be Islamic State terrorist’s account of committing atrocities in Syria could not be substantiated, completing a spectacular journalistic fall for the award-winning series and its primary reporter.

In several episodes of “Caliphate,” a Canadian man named Shehroze Chaudhry hauntingly described barbaric acts that included executing two hostages in Syria in 2014.

But after a nearly three-month review, the Times concluded that the podcast, co-hosted by reporter Rukmini Callimachi and audio producer Andy Mills, “did not meet our standards for accuracy,” according to an editor’s note now attached to the series.

It said it has reassigned Callimachi, one of its highest-profile journalists, and that she will no longer cover terrorism. “To our listeners, I apologize for what we missed and what we got wrong,” Callimachi wrote in a statement. “We are correcting the record and I commit to doing better in the future.”

And late Friday came the announcement that the Times would also return the prestigious Peabody award won by the podcast.

“As the standard for quality media, the integrity of the Peabody Award is paramount, and we appreciate the professional manner in which the Times has handled this matter,” Peabody executive director Jeffrey P. Jones said in a statement. “We will receive the return of the award, recognizing the mutual respect both organizations have for each other’s longstanding record of journalistic integrity.”

Canadian officials arrested Chaudhry, who went by the alias Abu Huzayfah in the podcast, in September, accusing him of concocting terrorist activities in media interviews. Subsequently, the Times “found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the ‘Caliphate’ podcast,” according to the lengthy editors’ note posted Friday.

The note fell short of a retraction but laid out several issues with “Caliphate,” including the lack of regular participation by an editor familiar with the subject matter. It also faulted journalists who could have “pressed harder” to vet Chaudhry’s claims.

“Times journalists were too credulous about the verification steps that were undertaken and dismissive of the lack of corroboration of essential aspects of Mr. Chaudhry’s account,” it said.

Executive Editor Dean Baquet told the Times in an interview that Callimachi — who hasn’t had a byline since the review process began — has been reassigned, but did not say what her new job would be. “I think it’s hard to continue covering terrorism after what happened with this story,” he told the paper. “But I think she’s a fine reporter.”

Baquet also told the Times that the fault did not sit with one journalist but was an institutional failure. He faulted himself and other “top deputies with deep experience in examining investigative reporting” for not providing enough scrutiny to such an ambitious piece of journalism.

In October, a columnist for The Times, Ben Smith, reported that two top editors — an international editor and a deputy managing editor — reviewed a draft of the series and warned the podcast team that it hinged on the credibility of one uncorroborated source, prompting a “frantic effort to salvage” the project.

In a podcast interview aired Friday, Baquet said the debacle showed the danger of confirmation bias — or “not paying enough attention to that powerful evidence that questioned the evidence we had,” he said. “You’re always going to get murkiness and a little bit of confusion when writing about the subject of ISIS, you’re just always going to get it, it’s never clean. But, frankly, that’s a reason to be five times as cautious.”

Baquet told The Washington Post that a retraction wasn’t warranted. “I take the term ‘retraction’ to mean we pulled it out of public circulation, unpublished it, in other words. That feels like concealment. The most important thing I believe is that we have been very specific about what was wrong.”

News organizations have wrestled with how to correct or amend deeply flawed reporting, and retractions are relatively rare.

The Atlantic magazine retracted a story last month about affluent parents who push their children into niche sports after it said it could not “attest to the trustworthiness and credibility of the author,” Ruth Shalit Barrett, “and therefore we cannot attest to the veracity of the article.”

[The Atlantic gave Ruth Shalit a ‘second chance’ 25 years after a media scandal. It ended with a bitter retraction.]

The New Yorker magazine, however, declined to do so this week after it found that the principal figures in a National Magazine Award-winning article from 2018 had apparently lied about their backgrounds. Despite finding that the falsehoods “broadly undermine the credibility of what they told us,” the magazine opted to append a lengthy editor’s note to the story and has kept it online in its original form. A spokesperson for the New Yorker said the magazine stands by its editor’s note.

Callimachi noted that she caught some of Chaudhry’s lies and acknowledged them in the story but faulted herself for missing other falsehoods.

“As journalists, we demand transparency from our sources, so we should expect it from ourselves,” she said in her statement. “Reflecting on what I missed in reporting our podcast is humbling. Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting.”

Mills, an audio reporter and producer who works on the Times’s popular “The Daily” podcast, served as the lead producer and co-reporter on “Caliphate.” He declined to comment on the matter. Asked about his status at the paper, a Times spokeswoman said they were “not commenting on individual employees” other than Callimachi’s reassignment.

As part of the paper's review, a team of Times writers investigated Chaudhry’s story and found no corroboration for the story he had shared in “Caliphate”; U.S. officials told them they believed Chaudhry never posed a terrorist threat, though noting it’s nearly impossible to say with “absolute certainty” that he never entered Syria.

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

The boom in narrative podcasts, which have adapted many conventions of long-form, feature writing into gripping audio tales, began with the 2014 true-crime hit, “Serial.” A common narrative tactic is to feature a host as a character in the drama, inviting listeners to follow them as they try to unravel mysteries.

The Times has been aggressive in pursuing podcasting; its flagship “The Daily” is published every day and features Times reporters going in-depth about their work. This summer, The Times acquired the company that produced “Serial.”

“Caliphate” was considered a triumph for the organization, earning the Times the newspaper its first Peabody audio award and Callimachi a Pulitzer Prize finalist citation.

The “Caliphate” debacle was the latest in a string of recent controversies involving the Times’s reporting and editing. The most notable dispute this summer was over its decision to publish an op-ed column by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) advocating military intervention to quell violent civic protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd. The column led to the resignation of the editorial page editor, James Bennet, who had been considered one of the leading contenders to succeed Baquet.

Like Callimachi, other Times journalists have been reassigned, rather than fired, when their work or conduct has been called into question. Deputy editorial page editor James Dao was reassigned in the wake of the uproar over publication of Cotton’s op-ed, as was Glenn Thrush, a former Times White House reporter who was taken off the beat in 2017 after allegations of misconduct arose when he was employed by Politico. Ali Watkins, who covered national security for the Times, was given a new assignment in 2018 after she disclosed that she had had a romantic relationship with a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer with access to sensitive intelligence data.

Questions about “Caliphate” started as soon as it began airing in April 2018. The podcast prompted a fierce debate in Canada about the threat of terrorism and criticism over the government’s alleged inaction against Chaudhry, who lives in the Toronto area.

But it wasn’t clear that Chaudhry could actually back up the claims he made on the podcast. In a September 2017 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., he mentioned witnessing acts of violence but made no mention of carrying out executions. He then told the CBC in May 2018 that he made up the murder claim in “Caliphate,” explaining that “I was being childish. I was describing what I saw and basically, I was close enough to think it was me.”

Callimachi said she interviewed Chaudhry in 2016, and thereafter 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” attempted to address the budding controversy over its own credibility in the sixth of its 12 episodes — an episode aired several days after the CBC had questioned the series. The episode detailed 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 Times initially defended the podcast in its initial statements after Chaudhry’s arrest in late September — noting that “the uncertainty about [Chaudhry’s] story is central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him” — before deciding to launch a review.

Callimachi’s defenders have said that her reporting on terrorism has 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. Her text and audio project “The ISIS Files” drew criticism from scholars who disapproved of her removal of 15,000 documents from Iraq. The Times said the documents, now archived at George Washington University, were transferred legally under the supervision of Iraqi security forces and customs officials.

In 2014, Callimachi wrote about a Syrian captive of ISIS who said he saw American hostages and warned U.S. 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. The Times continues to stand by the story.

Michael Foley, the brother of James Foley, an American journalist executed by Islamic State operatives in Syria in 2014, has publicly denounced her 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 his supposed conversion to Islam. “She left our family with a lot of pain from her unprofessionalism and lies,” he told the Daily Beast. The Times also stood by Callimachi’s reporting on Foley’s death.

Canadian officials continue to press their case against Chaudhry.

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