Why the NYT Is Reinvestigating its Own Reporter's Award-Winning 'Caliphate' Podcast

An arrest in Canada has raised questions on the credibility of Rukmini Callimachi's reporting. But this isn't the first time these questions have come up, a point that does little credit to the New York Times.

New Delhi: It is “generally a bit of a nightmare,” writes New York Times reporter Ben Smith, to have to investigate the media organisation you work for, question the decisions taken by senior editors (“my boss’s boss’s boss and my boss’s boss”) and look into the ethics of an award-winning and celebrated reporter who still works for the same organisation. But a series of events over the last few years, culminating in one big event two weeks ago, led to the NYT assigning Smith a story of this kind.

Beginning April 19, 2018, NYT released ‘Caliphate’ – a ten-part audio podcast series narrated and reported by Rukmini Callimachi. Callimachi is one the newspaper’s star foreign correspondents, and has been reporting on al-Qaeda and ISIS in West Asia and North Africa for years. The series won the 2018 Peabody Award in the radio/podcast category – the first such award for the NYT. Callimachi has also been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for her work.

Several senior NYT editors spoke highly of the podcast in public, with executive editor Dean Baquet (Smith’s “boss’s boss’s boss”) saying, “‘Caliphate’ was one of the best works of journalism of the year, created by a team of fearless journalists who shed new light on something as complex as ISIS and terrorism.”

So what happened, in the interim, for the newspaper to commission an article like Smith’s, and order a “fresh examination” of the entire podcast for charges of hoax?

An inconvenient arrest, and a throwback to internal questions

The big recent development – and the point where the NYT suggests the questioning of her reportage became unavoidable – was the September 25, 2020 arrest in Toronto of a 25-year-old Canadian citizen named Shehroze Chaudhry by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Chaudhry was a key protagonist in Callimachi’s podcast – the central figure whose association with ISIS she and Andy Mills were investigating. In the series, though, he is referred to only as ‘Abu Huzayfah al-Kanadi’, which he said was his jihadi name.

The inconvenient part of this arrest, for the NYT, was that Chaudhry has not been arrested for alleged jihadi activities (including the beheadings he describes on Caliphate), but for falsely claiming to have been an ISIS executioner. The Canadian police has charged him with ‘hoax in relation to terrorist activity‘ – a section that is usually used against people who call in false bomb threats, and carries a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.

“The charge stems from numerous media interviews where the accused, Shehroze Chaudhry, a 25-year-old from Burlington, Ontario, claimed he travelled to Syria in 2016 to join the terrorist group ISIS and committed acts of terrorism. The interviews were published in multiple media outlets, aired on podcasts and featured on a television documentary, raising public safety concerns amongst Canadians,” a statement from the RCMP said.

The arrest made public what a number of people – including some NYT editors – had been saying all along. Callimachi’s reportage was based on an account that could not be proved, yet was being presented in a manner that portrayed that the NYT believed Chaudhry’s version of events to be true (or at least significantly close to the truth).

Chaudhry’s account, though the backbone of Callimachi’s narrative in Caliphate, was never proved beyond doubt. Even within the Times, serious questions had been raised. When the podcast series was first sent to international editor Michael Slackman for review, he and another editor, Matt Purdy, said Abu Huzayfah’s remarks were “as lurid as they were uncorroborated”, Smith reports.

These internal questions led to a scramble of re-reporting from the podcast team, with reporters from the newspaper across the Middle East as well as stringers being asked to find any evidence that would prove Abu Huzayfah’s story. And that’s how Episode 6 of the podcast came to be. The subtitle of the episode says, ‘”Something was off.’ Rukmini’s doubt fuels a quest to uncover the truth.’ Smith’s report, though, makes it clear that the doubt came not from Callimachi or even the podcast team, but other internal editors.

The conclusion Callimachi draws in episode 6 (which was reported after episodes 1-5 and 7-9) is based on what Eric Schmitt, an NYT reporter based in Washington, learnt from his government sources. On the podcast, Schmitt says, “What two different officials in the US government at different agencies have told me is that this individual, this Canadian, was a member of ISIS. They believe that he joined ISIS in Syria.” As Ben Smith points out in his article, though, the NYT does not seem to have figured out why government agencies believed what they did, and whether there was any evidence beyond Chaudhry’s own pronouncements on social media.

In this sixth episode, the NYT reporters come to the conclusion that Abu Huzayfah gave them a false timeline of events. That doesn’t, however, deter them from continuing to use his testimony. They find another way to explain the timeline that also fits in with their narrative that he was an active ISIS member is Iraq and Syria. As Erik Wemple put it in the Washington Post, “That’s called rooting for the story.”

For the time being, Caliphate continues to be hosted on the NYT website, and several NYT editors have stood by the reporter’s work. Callimachi has said she “welcomes” the re-examination of the podcast, but also retweeted Yazidi activist Murad Ismael when he complimented Callimachi and referred to the allegations and questions in Smith’s article as “nonsense”.

External doubts

But it wasn’t just internally that the NYT podcast was raising eyebrows. Abu Huzayfah reportedly provided a different account of his time in ISIS to CBC News. While he told NYT that he had been involved in two executions in Syria, and this is what led to him coming back to Canada, he told CBC News producer Nazim Baksh in May 2018 that he was a low-level police officer and had not killed anyone.

Rukmini Callimachi. Photo: Twitter/Rukmini Callimachi

Baksh – who interviewed Abu Huzayfah about a year before Callimachi’s podcast was released – went back to his source, asking why he was telling two different stories. He apparently “started crying”, and insisted that he had lied to NYT but not CBC News.” He said, ‘I’ll submit to a polygraph. I embellished, I was on drugs, I was self-medicating, this was three weeks after I came back, I was so close to these things I imagined that I was the person doing them’,” Baksh said.

Of course, none of this proves either version of events. What it does support, though, was that Chaudhry was giving differing accounts of his activities to different journalists, and perhaps could not be trusted as the sole or even primary source for a narrative.

Even beyond the direct facts, the podcast has come under scrutiny for how it was reported. Months after Caliphate was released, The Baffler published a long article by Rafia Zakaria on why it didn’t deserve the acclaim and recognition it was getting, and why Callimachi’s work needed to be problematised. Zakaria wrote then,

“Billed as an unraveling of the mystery that is the Islamic State, Caliphate features Callimachi as star and narrator, an intrepid journalist who is human enough to be paranoid and yet journalist enough to be daring. Caliphate is also a new model of Western journalism, where the journalist is the moral hero, simultaneously a reporter and a protector of Western (read “good”) values. If she hunts and preys on her subject, takes liberties with journalistic ethics and likely even in assurances she makes to her subjects, the sum of it is all forgiven, given the larger noble purpose of fighting terror.”

The problem, Zakaria wrote, is that the ‘War on Terror’ has inspired a particular kind of predatory journalism, particularly from reporters from the West. Callimachi’s work, then, is not a one-off – it’s a member of a genre of journalistic work that takes advantage of subjects, while claiming moral superiority and using economic superiority.

“Callimachi the journalist has to get the story, but Callimachi the terror fighter has to identify the terrorist, get into his head, and bring us back gems of insight. Once she does so, she even wonders why Canadian authorities aren’t acting faster, arresting him and charging him. In this approach, it is impossible to tell where journalism ends and where terror fighting begins. Westerners, journalists among them, see themselves as fighting the good war against terror and everyone else occupying the morally inferior positions of victim or supporter.”

Journalists including Zakaria and The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald have asked what took the NYT so long to decide to review Callimachi’s work, since these issues had surfaced in 2018 itself. Zakaria has also said that when her article was first published, NYT editors wrote to her editors at The Baffler, saying that her piece was “error-ridden” and claiming that she had not heard the podcast she was critiquing.

Another group of people with whom Callimachi and the NYT’s coverage of ISIS haven’t always been popular are victims of the extremist group, and their families. The family of James Foley – a journalist executed by ISIS in 2014 – has claimed that the NYT reporter “left our family with a lot of pain from her un-professionalism and lies”, according to the Daily Beast. In January, Foley’s brother wrote to the NYT complaining about Callimachi’s behaviour and pointing out “inaccuracies” in her work.

“I would also like to bring to your attention, the extreme unprofessionalism and threats Rukmini directed to a grieving family only days after Jim’s horrific and public execution. On two occasions by phone, starting on Aug. 22nd, Rukmini threatened to publish a detailed torture story if I did not comply with her interview request,” Michael Foley’s letter to Times international editor Joseph Kahn said. (Kahn is one of the editors Ben Smith has written about – “my boss’s boss”.)

Smith’s article points out that this particular problem wasn’t specific to Callimachi – journalists across Western newsrooms sometimes reported in ways that put ISIS hostages in danger. “Rukmini is on the hot seat at the moment, but the sins were so general,” he quotes Theo Padnos, a freelance journalist who was in ISIS captivity for two years, as saying. Padnos alleges that the NYT’s coverage of his cellmate’s escape informed his captors that Padnos helped him.

The ‘stolen’ documents

There was at least one other time when Callimachi found herself in the middle of a serious journalistic controversy. In April 2018, after the podcast came out, Callimachi released a series of articles titled ‘The ISIS Files’. She was closely following security forces in Iraq as they battled – and defeated – ISIS fighters in Mosul and around, and used that opportunity to collect “close to 15,000 pages” of documents from the homes, offices and police stations occupied by ISIS members.

The problem? Callimachi did not take permission from the Iraqi government or any other local authority before she removed these crucial documents from the country. While the security forces may have known what she was doing (Callimachi has said they gave her “verbal permission”), they are not the right authority to seek permission from – and the days when she collected these papers are likely to have been marked by chaos immediately after the fall of ISIS.

The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association wrote to NYT editors about this, alleging that Callimachi and the editors who allowed her to function in this way had broken numerous customary laws. The letter says:

“The nearly 16,000 documents that Ms. Callimachi relies on for this series were taken out of Iraq by her and her team without permission of the relevant Iraqi authorities.  With your approval, she has used these materials for a series of articles and podcasts in complete disregard of the myriad legal, professional, ethical, and moral issues involved.  We call upon both Ms. Callimachi and your newspaper, which has no right to possess or retain these materials, to immediately return all of them to the proper Iraqi authorities in their original form.  In the meantime, neither Ms. Callimachi nor anyone else should be permitted to make public any documents containing personal information, as the 4 April article did and as Ms. Callimachi has done in a subsequent series of tweets, because such disclosures potentially endanger the lives of individual Iraqis.

…We further note that Ms. Callimachi and The New York Times have used these documents with complete disregard for potential ramifications.  There is no indication that either The New York Times or members of the team that it assembled to examine these materials took seriously the dangers involved in publishing unredacted documents.  Such behavior, which jeopardizes the safety of people who have already suffered untold trauma and tragedy, is both extremely reckless and completely unethical.”

While journalists (unauthorisedly) accessing documents that originally belong to governments is the stock-in trade of reporting around the world – the WikiLeaks cables being a major example of the genre – media ethics make it mandatory that these documents be used responsibly, without endangering lives or violating basic privacy norms of individuals caught up in them. Not only did Callimachi allegedly violate that ethical boundary, there another major problem too: her removal of documents was clearly fuelled by a problematic power relationship in which she was able to use the cover of the US military operating in a country that it had virtually occupied.

Personality-driven journalism

Caliphate is not just a podcast about an ISIS member, and the activities of one man who claims to have spent years in the violent, extremist organisation. It is also a podcast about a journalist, an intrepid reporter, and how she got this story in the first place.

As in many narrative journalistic projects, Callimachi is very much front-and-centre in Caliphate – it could be said that it is she, and not Abu Huzayfah, who is the primary character in the show. In one episode, she talks about the fear she felt one day when she was alone at home at night and there was heavy knocking on her door.

Because of this, it perhaps makes sense that much of the recent criticism and questioning has been directed at her, personally, rather than the NYT – an organisation, like many others, that must know how reporters like Callimachi got their story. (In this particular case, like in the 2018 allegations against Callimachi, the NYT cannot feign ignorance – both Caliphate and her stories then detailed her process along with her findings.)

Is focusing on a singular reporter, though, akin to missing the woods for the trees? After all, Callimachi and Caliphate were celebrated both by the NYT and the larger journalistic community, in addition to the wider public. This, despite the fact that much of what we know now – particularly on Abu Huzayfah being an unreliable source and Callimachi’s reporting methods – was already known while they were feted.

Ben Smith, while focusing on Callimachi and a few editors who worked with her throughout his story, comes to a similar conclusion – to throw this particular reporter under the bus ignores why she worked the way she worked, and how she achieved the success that she has.

“Last month, that same cloud of doubt descended on Caliphate. And Ms. Callimachi now faces intense criticism from inside The Times and out — for her style of reporting, for the cinematic narratives in her writing and for The Times’s place in larger arguments about portrayals of terrorism.

But while some of the coverage has portrayed her as a kind of rogue actor at The Times, my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support.”