It has not been a great year for the New York Times.
The paper of record announced this weekend that Caliphate, its award-winning 10-part podcast series on the Islamic State, contains “significant falsehoods and other discrepancies.”
The disclosure concludes an internal investigation launched this year after Canadian officials charged the series's central narrative character with lying about his supposed involvement with the terrorist group.
Absent the testimony of the accused hoaxer, Canadian resident Shehroze Chaudhry, who spoke to the New York Times under the pseudonym “Abu Huzayfah,” there is not much left to the 2018 podcast. Indeed, the show’s most gripping and grizzly “reporting” on ISIS's operations in Syria relies entirely on the say-so of the supposed “executioner” who most likely has never even been to Syria.
"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," New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet explained this week in an interview with NPR.
He added of Caliphate’s main character, "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."
It is not an overstatement to say Chaudhry is central to the Caliphate project. His supposed first-hand anecdotes about becoming radicalized and committing atrocities in Syria, which won the podcast a large audience, acclaim, and several prestigious journalism awards, drive the entire narrative. However, it seems clear Chaudhry lied about his alleged experiences marauding across the Middle East with ISIS, disgracing both himself and the New York Times.
The journalist responsible for Caliphate, Rukmini Callimachi, who also hosted the show, already has been reassigned far away from reporting on terrorism.
"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," said Baquet.
Callimachi’s reassignment is a good thing, too, considering how she comported herself when questions were first raised about her “reporting” for Caliphate. She dismissed doubts about the trustworthiness of "Huzayfah" out of hand, claiming her critics simply did not have access to the sort of intelligence that she and her team did.
"We were able to get to [‘Abu Huzayfah’] both before any other media had gotten to him, but crucially, before law enforcement had gotten to him," she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in May 2018. "He would speak to us in this window of time when he essentially thought that he had slipped through the cracks."
She added, "He gave us a gift with the story. It's an eye-opening account of his passage through the Islamic State."
Later, shortly before Canadian authorities charged Chaudhry with perpetrating a terrorist hoax, Callimachi questioned the competency of the investigators.
Each chapter of Caliphate now bears a lengthy editor’s note, warning that the episodes that rely on Chaudhry’s testimony, which is most of them, do not meet the New York Times’s “standards for accuracy.”
The paper, by the way, does not deserve credit for finally investigating the credibility of its own reporting. Critics have raised questions since 2018 about the authenticity of Chaudhry’s tale, only to be rebuffed or ignored by New York Times leadership. The paper revisited Callimachi’s reporting only because it was left with no other choice following the terrorist hoax charges brought against Chaudhry, whose stories as recounted by the New York Times raised serious concerns in Canada over the issue of reintegrating reformed terrorists back into society.
“In the absence of firmer evidence,” reads the editor’s note, “Caliphate should have been substantially revised to exclude the material related to Mr. Chaudhry. The podcast as a whole should not have been produced with Mr. Chaudhry as a central narrative character.”
Caliphate won the 2018 Peabody Award. The New York Times has already returned it. The Overseas Press Club has also rescinded the podcast’s Lowell Thomas Award.
Man, what a year for the paper of record.
From publishing Chinese communist propaganda, to getting it wrong on coronavirus vaccine readiness, to losing top opinion editors following a temper tantrum thrown by newsroom staffers, to having nearly its entire bench of columnists suffer a collective nervous breakdown ahead of Election Day, to pretending still as if its fraudulent 1619 Project is not an abject embarrassment, 2020 has been as lousy a year for the New York Times as it has been for everyone else.