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New York Times says parts of hit ‘Caliphate’ podcast are inaccurate, reassigns reporter

After an internal review that took more than two months, The New York Times has determined that “Caliphate,” its award-winning 2018 podcast, did not meet the standards for Times journalism.

The 12-part audio documentary featuring Rukmini Callimachi, a Times correspondent who has frequently reported from conflict zones, sought to shed light on the Islamic State terrorist group. The Times found that “Caliphate” gave too much credence to the false or exaggerated accounts of one of its main subjects, Shehroze Chaudhry, a resident of Canada who claimed to have taken part in Islamic State executions.

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Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times, said the blame fell on the newsroom’s leaders, including himself.

“When The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom,” he said in a podcast interview that was scheduled to be posted by The Times on Friday.

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“We did not do that in this case,” he continued. “And I think that I or somebody else should have provided that same kind of scrutiny, because it was a big, ambitious piece of journalism. And I did not provide that kind of scrutiny, nor did my top deputies with deep experience in examining investigative reporting.”

The Times started its review of “Caliphate” after Canadian authorities arrested Chaudhry on Sept. 25 and charged him with perpetrating a terrorist hoax. In an editors’ note Friday, The Times said its investigation had “found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the ‘Caliphate’ podcast. As a result, The Times has concluded that the episodes of ‘Caliphate’ that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.”

The editors’ note described two main problems: The Times’ failure to assign an editor well versed in terrorism to keep a close watch on the series; and the “Caliphate” team’s lack of skepticism and rigor in its reporting on Chaudhry.

“From the outset, ‘Caliphate’ should have had the regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter,” the note said. “In addition, The Times should have pressed harder to verify Mr. Chaudhry’s claims before deciding to place so much emphasis on one individual’s account.”

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An audio correction will be added to episodes of “Caliphate,” so that listeners will hear The Times’ verdict on where it went wrong. Baquet also discussed the lapses in the audio interview scheduled to be released Friday with Michael Barbaro, the host of the Daily podcast. A transcript was reviewed for this article.

In the interview with Barbaro, Baquet raised the possibility that Chaudhry had “duped” The Times, but said the news organization was at fault. “Look, there was a well-known reporter involved in it — Rukmini Callimachi,” he said. “But this failing isn’t about any one reporter. I think this was an institutional failing.”

The Times reviewed “Caliphate” in two separate investigations. Dean E. Murphy, an associate managing editor for investigations, headed a group that examined how the series was reported, edited and fact-checked. Mark Mazzetti, an investigative correspondent with an expertise in intelligence, led a team of reporters who looked into Chaudhry. On Friday the Times published an article by the Mazzetti-led team, which provided a depiction of Chaudhry that contrasted sharply with the man who was central to “Caliphate,” describing him as “a fabulist who spun jihadist tales about killing.”

Baquet said in the podcast interview that “the reporting team couldn’t find any independent evidence to back up his story of being an ISIS executioner in Syria,” using an alternative name for the Islamic State. He added, “I think this guy, we now believe, was a con artist, who made up most if not all that he told us.”

Since the start of the review process, Callimachi’s byline has not appeared in The Times. Baquet said in an interview for this article that Callimachi will stay on at the paper. “She’s going to take on a new beat, and she and I are discussing possibilities,” he said. “I think it’s hard to continue covering terrorism after what happened with this story. But I think she’s a fine reporter.” Her last published work was a series of articles on the killing of Breonna Taylor. Callimachi declined to comment.

“Caliphate” was something new for The Times — a venture into narrative audio that came as part of a recent emphasis on multimedia journalism. It was a creation of the Times audio department, which has grown quickly since it was started in 2016. In its review, The Times found that journalists working in audio had less oversight from upper-level editors than reporters who work for the newspaper itself.

“We do a lot of things we didn’t do before,” Baquet said in the interview for this article. “We don’t just produce long-form newspaper stories. I don’t think we have built a system to give that kind of support to some of the bigger things we do.” He added, “For the most part we’ve gotten everything right. But I think this fell through the cracks, because it was a different way of telling stories than The New York Times is used to. We didn’t have a system in place to manage that, to help the audio team manage that.”

Like other shows of its kind, “Caliphate” had suspenseful moments and a moody score. It also had a pair of likable hosts in Callimachi, the winner of major journalism awards for her reporting on terrorism and Islamic extremism, and Andy Mills, an audio producer and reporter.

The series was the brainchild of Lisa Tobin, executive producer of Times audio; Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor; and Mills, according to two people with knowledge of the podcast. The first installment came out on April 19, 2018, as part of an episode of The Daily. The first words of “Caliphate” were an exchange between Callimachi and Chaudhry taken from a 2016 interview recorded in Canada.

“How does ISIS prepare you to kill people?” Callimachi asked.

Chaudhry, who said he had assumed the name Abu Huzayfah as a member of the Islamic State, replied haltingly, saying, “We had dolls to practice on.” In later installments, he said he took part in lashings, as well as the killings of two people, describing the executions in grisly detail.

His apparent confession created a firestorm in Canada. Politicians asked why a supposed Islamic State executioner was living quietly within the nation’s borders. Upon his Sept. 25 arrest, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police charged Chaudhry under a law usually applied to people who make false terroristic threats.

The hoax charge cast doubt on “Caliphate,” but The Times was initially supportive. “The uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story is central to every episode of ‘Caliphate’ that featured him,” a Times spokeswoman said in a Sept. 26 statement. Days later, The Times announced that it would review the series, which had been a popular and critical success in 2018, hitting No. 1 on Apple’s list of most downloaded podcasts and later winning an Overseas Press Club prize and a Peabody Award.

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There had been warning signs during — and even before — the months when “Caliphate” episodes came out each Thursday. In a 2017 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Chaudhry gave an account of his time with the Islamic State that differed greatly from what he had told Callimachi. In that CBC interview, he said he had “witnessed violence on a scale he could never have imagined,” but did not say he had taken part.

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In another interview, published on the CBC website May 11, 2018, Chaudhry recanted his confession. When asked why he had told The Times that he had participated in atrocities, he said, “I was being childish. I was describing what I saw and, basically, I was close enough to think it was me.”

Behind the scenes at The Times, as was previously reported by the paper’s media columnist, Ben Smith, high-level editors had raised concerns about “Caliphate” before it was released.

In March 2018, after reviewing draft scripts, Michael Slackman, the paper’s assistant managing editor in charge of international coverage, called members of the “Caliphate” team into a meeting with Matthew Purdy, a deputy managing editor, and Dolnick. Slackman and Purdy said that parts of the series seemed to rely too much on Chaudhry’s uncorroborated accounts. They told the reporters and editors to pause the project until they had done more reporting.

The “Caliphate” team decided to add an episode on the discrepancies in Chaudhry’s account. It was released May 24, 2018, under the title “Chapter Six: Paper Trail.” In it, Callimachi said she had gone over her notes and documents with fresh eyes and noticed stamps in Chaudhry’s passport suggesting he had misled her concerning his whereabouts at certain times. “It was at that point that I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach,” she said in the episode.

Narrative journalism can be perilous, said Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor-in-chief of The Chicago Tribune who has run the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard since 2011. “That’s a certain kind of storytelling that is much valued and does have this built-in entertainment quality,” she said. “But you can never sacrifice the reporting to that.”

In his interview with Barbaro, Baquet said that “a really good piece of journalism not only chews on the stuff that supports the story — it chews on the stuff that refutes the story.”

“And in the end,” he continued, “good journalism comes from some sort of internal debate over whether or not the stuff that supports the story is more powerful than the stuff that refutes the story. I think this is one of those cases where I think we just didn’t listen hard enough to the stuff that challenged the story. And to the signs that maybe our story wasn’t as strong as we thought it was.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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