New York Times says prize-winning podcast contained “flawed reporting”, returns Peabody Award while another award is revoked

December 20, 2020 • 9:15 am

The bad news is that the New York Times has screwed up again, this time by taking the word, on a prize-winning podcast, of a guy who says he killed for ISIS but apparently made it all up. The good news is that at least the Times is reporting their own screwup. The further bad news is that the reporter who ran the podcast, and also has a history of dubious journalism, is staying on at the paper with the encomium of being a “fine reporter.” But the Times has fired people for a lot less, including op-ed editor James Bennet simply for running a conservative editorial, with no factual errors, by Republican Senator Tom Cotton. Apparently some Times staffers have greater privilege than others.

Read and weep:

What happened is that, starting in April of 2018, the NYT ran a 6-episode podcast called “Caliphate”, about ISIS. The host was Rukmini Callimachi, a reporter for the paper. The podcast heavily featured Shehroze Chaudhry, a Canadian resident who said he had carried out executions for ISIS.  It turns out that Chaudhry was a con man who fabricated those tales to make himself look important. The NYT launched an investigation just this year, and now they’ve given back the prestigious Peabody Award that the series won, while the Overseas Press Club took back the Lowell Thomas Award it had given the podcast.

Why is the NYT reporting on this only now? Well, it seems their hand was forced because Canadians started asking why an ISIS killer was allowed to live peacefully in their country. Canadian authorities then arrested Chaudhry in September, but not for terrorism—for perpetrating a hoax. He didn’t do what he said he did, and so was arrested for a hoax, not terrorism. (I’m not sure what the charges were.) It was then that the NYT decided to go public with their story.

What’s weird about all this is two things. First, although the first episode of the podcast appeared in April 2018, almost immediately there were signs that Chaudhry was dissimulating :

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 Corporation, Mr. Chaudhry gave an account of his time with the Islamic State that differed greatly from what he had told Ms. 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.

In another interview, published on the CBC website on May 11, 2018, Mr. 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.”

Second, this was 2.5 years ago, right after the first episode of the podcast appeared. And yet the NYT didn’t even do its investigative review until early October of this year—30 months after Chaudhry said he’d lied. But there’s even more:

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 Mr. Dolnick. Mr. Slackman and Mr. Purdy said that parts of the series seemed to rely too much on Mr. 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 Mr. Chaudhry’s account. It was released May 24, 2018, under the title “Chapter Six: Paper Trail.” In it, Ms. Callimachi said she had gone over her notes and documents with fresh eyes and noticed stamps in Mr. 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.

That was again 2.5 years ago, but only in October of this year was there a review, and only last Friday did the NYT publish its report.  Plus there was evidence that Callimachi had relied on dubious sources in other stories:

Since the start of the review process, Ms. Callimachi’s byline has not appeared in The Times. Mr. Baquet [the paper’s executive editor] said in an interview for this article that Ms. Callimachi will stay 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. As a result of the internal investigation, The Times added editors’ notes describing problems with two articles by Ms. Callimachi in 2014 and 2019.

Read the last two links, whose caveats revealed that Callimachi was relying on dubious and unauthenticated sources. So she screwed up twice before (remember, reporters need to verify the claims of subjects), and then she relied on a lying faux-ISIS member—even after she had suspicions about his veracity and after he said in 2018 that he made stuff up. Why, then, is she deemed a “fine reporter”? And why is she staying at the paper when they let reporters go for far lesser offenses, like publishing a conservative editorial? (Another op-ed editor, Adam Rubenstein, left this week for the apparent crime of being pro-Israel. See Bari Weiss’s Twitter thread about this.)

What did the Times‘s investigation conclude? That the podcast projecct moved too fast, didn’t check facts, and had expanded into new types of reporting without sufficient journalistic care. The podcast simply “didn’t meet [the paper’s] standards for accuracy”:

Dean Baquet, the 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 posted by The Times on Friday.

“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.”

. . . “We do a lot of things we didn’t do before,” Mr. 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.”

Sound familiar? Like. . . The 1619 Project, also dogged by claims of inaccuracy, and, like the podcast, inaccuracies that the paper initially defended?  Both projects were an expansion of the paper’s traditional journalism into new areas, and both suffered from a lack of fact-checking.

Finally, the paper gets spanked by a prominent journalist:

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.”

But the NYT did! Even the paper’s executive editor admitted it, though with a weaselly “maybe” in the last sentence below:

In his interview with Mr. Barbaro, Mr. 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.”


Given that the paper has given back or lost the two awards that the podcast garnered, that its main reporter and host has been found culpable twice before for relying on dubious sources, and that that the paper’s executive editor admits a lack of oversight that is his fault—exactly the same fault for which Bennet was fired—it seems to me that heads should be rolling at the paper. Not only Baquet’s, but Callimachi’s. This isn’t just a decision to run a conservative story to which Times staffers objected: it’s the actual presentation of fake news already suspected to be dubious when presented—but not corrected for two and a half years. If Bennet got the boot for lax oversight of the Tom Cotton editorial, then Baquet should go for being the editor at whom the buck stops, and Callimachi should be shown the door for being gulled at least three times by phony documents and lying sources.

The paper continues its downward slide, for which there are many causes: a clickbaity attitude, increasing wokeness, and biasing both editorial and news content towards the “progressive” Left. The only reason I still subscribe is that it’s the best of a bad lot of papers. Yes, the subscriptions and profit might be increasing, but what do I care about that?

h/t: Greg

13 thoughts on “New York Times says prize-winning podcast contained “flawed reporting”, returns Peabody Award while another award is revoked

  1. It is no consolation but I’m glad I picked WP instead of the Times. It just seems to me they are going down hill faster and this episode kind of proves it. Reporters doing the hard work of investigative journalism can always get con’d or tricked in the process of dealing with people but the oversight is suppose to prevent this kind of result. Reporters did a good job on the Trump financials they covered but they really screwed this one. If they do not replace some people it will likely happen again.

  2. It turns out that Chaudhry made all that up to make himself look important.

    The average person often stumbles in recognizing this. When people we don’t know very well tell incredible stories, the first motivation we consider is money. Could they be lying for profit? Then we wonder if they might be lying to take advantage of someone. If neither one seems to fit, the incredible becomes more credible. This is especially true if there’s something in the story that shows them in a bad light. Why would they make up something which makes them look bad?

    Creating drama for drama’s sake — or just getting attention— gets overlooked. Too much trouble.

    A reporter, however, isn’t the average person. Dealing with people telling them things is their bread and butter. I wonder then if everyone involved here was overconfident that they could “spot a liar.” Even so, it’s no excuse.

  3. I wonder what these editors and authors really thought about this story. Did they consciously avoid looking closely at the evidence or were they innocent victims of their own wishful thinking? Did they deliberately go along with the hoax and just get caught? Or perhaps the perpetrator of the hoax was very skilled. It must be difficult to corroborate a would-be terrorist’s claims. On the other hand, if they told different stories to different people, that’s ought to be a red flag.

    1. I think there was a lot of confirmation bias going on. They covered this on CNN this morning on Reliable Sources. The pod cast is a newer thing at the Times also and they may have been sleeping at the switch. Marty Baron of the WP was also on today, talking about some of the things they will be doing in the future. He confirms that the slogan Democracy dies in Darkness will still be on the paper after Trump is gone.

  4. Big story, big editorial failure. The more you want something to be true, the more you have to be careful you don’t let yourself get fooled.

    1. Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  5. One of the clues that led ace reporter Callimachi to wonder, finally, about her informant’s account of his whereabouts was apparently the stamps in his passport, showing where he had actually been about. Zounds, what a breakthrough in investigative reporting! Next, we may expect a NYT podcast about Santa Claus’ activities at the North Pole, based on interviews with Santa himself.

    The NYT decision to retain Ms. Callimachi is probably based on her record of previous journalism
    awards. These include the 2004 John M. Templeton Religion Story of the Year award. How could the NYT dare to do anything that undermined that award’s prestige?

  6. I heard of a story in the Atlantic Mag some years ago in which a female reporter covered a story about a high school kid who had made a million in the stock market. The boy later admitted that it was the stock simulator game and not real stocks. That and this podcast story only got outed because they were so outlandish and huge. There are smaller stories and details that fly under the radar all the time, and actually, the biggest infraction is that big media covers up other news and stories, suppresses info, and cherry picks what news they want to go out.

    1. “…got outed because they were so outlandish and huge.”

      Didn’t Trmp lie his way onto Forbes Richest Men list by using that tactic?
      No one bothered to check this he decided to run for President, they took his word for it.

  7. A reminder that ‘The 1619 Project’ won a Pulitzer Prize.

    Then again, so did Walter Duranty and Seymour Hersh, both war crime deniers.

  8. I listened to the podcast at the time it came out as I write articles about Middle East politics myself and it is an interest of mine. I don’t think the screw-up is as bad as the 1619 disaster as it didn’t really effect much – other than red faces in Midtown. 1619 has much broader consequences.

    That said, the NYTime’s mea cupla is to its credit. Do you see a lot of that in the conservative media? Faux, Breitbart and now these harder core ones like OAN and Newsmax are lying on an industrial scale, a conspiracy of bs, not one or two reporters’ screw ups.

    Of some interest, though, is why a guy would invent a story like that. There are some articles in the Times lately as to why.

  9. This is not a good look for the NYT. The trust we place in a media source is only as good as the confidence we have in their dedication to only run accurate and fact-checked stories. I generally trust the reporting I see in the Times, and this is the kind of thing that erodes that trust. The mea culpa helps, but the hypocrisy smells, given that they fired Bennet for less.

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