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NY Times Retracts “Caliphate” Podcast

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2020

Caliphate, Rukmini Callimachi’s podcast for the NY Times about ISIS, was one of my favorite podcasts of 2018 — I recommended it in a post in June of that year. The NY Times has now retracted a central story in the podcast, that of an alleged ISIS executioner from Canada named Abu Huzayfah.

During the course of reporting for the series, The Times discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies in Huzayfah’s story. The Times took a number of steps, including seeking confirmation of details from intelligence officials in the United States, to find independent evidence of Huzayfah’s story. The decision was made to proceed with the project but to include an episode, Chapter 6, devoted to exploring major discrepancies and highlighting the fact-checking process that sought to verify key elements of the narrative.

In September — two and a half years after the podcast was released — the Canadian police arrested Huzayfah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, and charged him with perpetrating a terrorist hoax. Canadian officials say they believe that Mr. Chaudhry’s account of supposed terrorist activity is completely fabricated. The hoax charge led The Times to investigate what Canadian officials had discovered, and to re-examine Mr. Chaudhry’s account and the earlier efforts to determine its validity. This new examination 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.

From a Times piece about Chaudhry’s hoax:

Before “Caliphate” aired, two American officials told The Times that Mr. Chaudhry had, in fact, joined ISIS and crossed into Syria. And some of the people who know and have counseled Mr. Chaudhry say they have no doubt that he holds extremist, jihadist views.

But Canadian law enforcement officials, who conducted an almost four-year investigation into Mr. Chaudhry, say their examination of his travel and financial records, social media posts, statements to the police and other intelligence make them confident that he did not enter Syria or join ISIS, much less commit the grievous crimes he described.

You can read more about this on NPR. Callimachi has been reassigned by the Times; the paper’s editor in chief Dean Baquet said, “I do not see how Rukmini could go back to covering terrorism after one of the highest profile stories of terrorism is getting knocked down in this way.”

Update: Here’s a statement from Callimachi on the retraction. It reads, in part:

Reflecting on what I missing in reporting our podcast is humbling. Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting. I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and I reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told us, and I should have. I added caveats to try to make clear what we knew and what we didn’t. It wasn’t enough.

There are several listeners of the podcast in her mentions that do not feel as though they were misled. I’d have to go back and listen to the whole thing again to have an opinion, but I would like to note that Caliphate told a story and showed the behind-the-scenes at the same time. That non-traditional approach was really compelling, a key aspect of the show’s success IMO. Because you’re dealing with violent organizations and sealed investigations (neither ISIS nor government groups like the FBI want their information out there), there are limits on how stories like this can even be told. Callimachi and her colleagues creatively found a way to tell this one: by being upfront and transparent about those limitations and explicitly showing their work, misgivings and all. But perhaps, as she said, it wasn’t enough.