New York Times Investigation Finds Fabrication in Caliphate

Photo: The New York TImes

Two months after opening an internal review, the New York Times has delivered its verdict on Caliphate, its award-winning 2018 podcast series about ISIS, stating that the project does “not meet its journalistic standards.”

To recap how this all started: In late September, Canadian authorities arrested a man on the charge of falsely portraying himself as a former ISIS member. That man, Shehroze Chaudhry, is believed to be the individual known as Abu Huzayfah, the primary subject of Caliphate, whose purported account of life as an ISIS member provides the series with its catalyzing event and narrative backbone.

According to the Times’ own reporting on itself, the investigation found that the series “gave too much credence to the false or exaggerated accounts” of Chaudhry. Rukmini Callimachi, the reporter and host of Caliphate, has been reassigned to another beat as a result of the process.

The Times’ internal review spanned the entire series, but its findings so far are contained to the segments regarding Chaurdry’s narrative, which make up the bulk of the podcast’s initial episodes. As of this writing, it seems that while the Times is walking back the chunks that specifically pertain to Chaudry, it’s not disavowing the entire series. An editor’s note has now been appended to the start of every episode, and no content from the show will actually be removed, a Times spokesperson confirmed.

Of the decision to walk back parts of the series, the Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet told NPR in an interview yesterday, “We fell in love with the fact that we had gotten a member of ISIS who would describe his life in the caliphate and would describe his crimes … I think we were so in love with it that when we saw evidence that maybe he was a fabulist, when we saw evidence that he was making some of it up, we didn’t listen hard enough.” Baquet and investigative correspondent Mark Mazzetti appear on a special episode just released on the Caliphate podcast feed, explaining the circumstances, findings, and ultimate decision to The Daily host Michael Barbaro, though that conversation does not appear on The Daily’s own feed.

Barbaro also took to Twitter to clarify the official stance the Times is taking: “The Times says it cannot stand by the episodes of Caliphate that present his claims. That’s not the entire series, by a long shot, and the NYT did not retract the series,” he tweeted.

Callimachi, who led Caliphate alongside producer Andy Mills, initially stood by her work in the wake of Chaudhry’s September arrest, as did the Times. However, not long after questions first arose, the organization announced that it would be opening a “fresh examination” into Callimachi’s reporting on the series. That October development was followed by several pieces, including one from the Daily Beast, multiple columns from the Washington Post’s media critic Erik Wemple, and even one from the Times’ own media columnist Ben Smith, highlighting various lines of criticism that have been made against Callimachi’s work, both from within and beyond the Times, which portrayed her as having a tendency toward sensationalism and inaccuracy in the service of a narrative (among other things).

Callimachi released a statement of her own on Twitter, writing, “I am fiercely proud of the stories I have broken on the ISIS beat. But as journalists, we demand transparency from our sources, so we should expect it from ourselves … I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told, and I should have … To our listeners, I apologize for what we missed and what we got wrong. We are correcting the record and I commit to doing better in the future.”

This is all a huge mess, and it is also, without a doubt, the biggest blow to the reputation of the Times’ star audio team since its formation in mid-2016 (not to mention a big blow to the organization’s reputation in general, which has particularly sensitive significance in an era defined by distortions around notions of truth and journalism). Across its life, that team has built out a buzzy track record, primarily but not exclusively pegged to the creation of The Daily, which has since gone on to become a new massive touchpoint for the organization and a phenomenon in its own right.

Those achievements engendered a ton of goodwill and leeway for the audio operation as well as for the Times itself, and one could argue those things provided a honeymoon period for whatever warranted criticisms that should be levied on the new — and perhaps less traditionally accepted within journalistic circles — ways in which the team approaches storytelling. (I know this argument should be applied to myself, having reviewed Caliphate positively when it first came out.)

Four years in and one massive scandal later, it’s all but likely that that honeymoon period is over for the Times.

Update, December 18: Hours after releasing their findings about Caliphate, the New York Times agreed to return the Peabody Award received by the 2018 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 Award executive director Dr. 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.”

Update, December 23: The Pulitzer Prizes have also revoked an honor for Caliphate, now at the request of the New York Times. Caliphate, along with the written report “The ISIS Files,” had been a finalist in the International Reporting category in 2019, specifically lead journalist Rukmini Callimachi. According to a Times report, the paper requested that the project be stripped of that honor after concluding an internal investigation on December 18. “In 2020, after Canadian authorities charged a figure profiled in the entry with perpetrating a terrorist hoax, an internal Times investigation concluded that the work failed its ‘standards for accuracy,’” the Pulitzer board said in a December 22 statement. “The Board accepted withdrawal of the entry as an appropriate resolution of this matter.”

New York Times Investigation Finds Fabrications in Caliphate