New York Times says ‘Caliphate’ podcast on ISIS didn’t meet its standards but reassigns reporter

The New York Times acknowledged Friday that a celebrated podcast about a would-be ISIS 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.

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, including “Caliphate.”

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 full retraction of the episodes featuring Chaudhry but laid out several issues with “Caliphate,” including the lack of regular participation by an editor experienced in the subject matter of the podcast. It also faulted journalists who could have “pressed harder” to vet Chaudhry’s claims.

“It is also clear that elements of the original fact-checking process were not sufficiently rigorous: 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 and 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.

Chaudhry’s arrest also prompted a second review, led by a Times investigative correspondent, into the alleged terrorist’s claims. Their findings published Friday in a news article; they also couldn’t corroborate the story he had previously described in “Caliphate” episodes. The journalists also consulted with American officials who agreed that Chaudhry never posed a terrorist threat, while warning it’s nearly impossible to say with “absolute certainty” that he never entered Syria.

The Times’ mea culpa completed the spectacular fall of “Caliphate” and Callimachi, who had been one of the news organization’s most celebrated reporters. The series had earned the veteran correspondent a Pulitzer Prize finalist citation last year and the Times its first Peabody audio award.

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 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 published 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 defended the podcast in its initial statements after Chaudhry’s arrest in late September. “The uncertainty about (Chaudhry’s) story is central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him,” a spokesperson said. Within days, however, the Times reversed course and said it would review the podcast.

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 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, D.C., were transferred legally 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. 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 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 also stood by Callimachi’s reporting on Foley’s death.

Canadian officials continue to press their case against Chaudhry.

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