The New York Times on Friday released the findings of its internal investigation into star reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s reporting on ISIS and extremism in the Middle East. The newspaper acknowledged that its Caliphate podcast gave “too much credence to the false or exaggerated accounts” of one of its main subjects, Shehroze Chaudhry, who has since been charged in Canada with concocting a terrorist hoax.
The paper of record rolled out its executive editor, Dean Baquet, on Friday to explain the glaring errors in another podcast, this time a “special episode” of The Daily. Baquet said, “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... We did not do that in this case.”
The Times has previously admitted, however, that high-level editors did raise concerns about Caliphate before it was broadcast and Michael Slackman, the paper’s assistant managing editor, questioned Callimachi about her reporting in a meeting to review the scripts, as The Daily Beast previously reported.
Baquet said Callimachi would remain at the newspaper but she would be reassigned. “I think it’s hard to continue covering terrorism after what happened with this story. But I think she’s a fine reporter,” he said.
Callimachi came under intense scrutiny after the main subject of her award-winning podcast was charged in Canada this year with making up a terrorism hoax in which he claimed to have joined ISIS in Syria and to have been a part of its brutal police force. Law-enforcement officials said that, in reality, Shehroze Chaudhry, better known by his alias Abu Huzayfah, lied about his exploits to the media and had actually never traveled to Syria.
His arrest immediately sparked questions at the Times, which through Callimachi’s reporting had leaned heavily on Chaudhry’s allegedly fabricated story.
The Times launched two probes into its Pulitzer-nominated correspondent. One of those probes, helmed by award-winning reporter Mark Mazzetti, was tasked with looking specifically at the claims made by Canadian officials. The other, headed up by Dean Murphy, a managing editor for investigations, was tasked more broadly with examining Callimachi’s body of work, and questions about whether the paper made errors in her previous reporting.
In an editor’s note posted Friday, the Times said its investigations 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 note went on: “From the outset, Caliphate should have had the regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter... 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.”
Specifically, the investigation led by Mazzetti found that while they could not be sure that Chaudhry never traveled to Syria, he fabricated details for Times reporters. The investigation said Chaudhry shared multiple images with the Times proving he traveled to Syria that he appeared to have taken from the internet. Investigators also spoke with a commander who disputed several basic claims Chaudhry told podcasters about his supposed duties in Syria. The paper also reported that Canadian law enforcement said that, despite Chaudhry’s claims that he was studying at a university in Canada, there was no evidence he was a student there.
While Baquet stood by Callimachi, Friday’s reports were already having consequences for some of the accolades her podcast collected. Caliphate won several prestigious journalism awards in 2018, including the Peabody Award and Overseas Press Club of America award. In a statement to The Daily Beast on Friday, the Overseas Press Club said it was “looking into the matter,” and announced later on Friday that it had rescinded the award.
The Peabody Award was soon returned as well.
“The Peabody organization was informed today that the New York Times will return its 2018 Peabody Award for the podcast Caliphate. Following an internal investigation into the veracity of the podcast, the Times concluded that crucial portions did not meet its standards for accuracy, and no longer stood behind the reporting,” a statement from the organization read.
“As the standard for quality media, the integrity of the Peabody Award is paramount, and we appreciate the professional manner in which the Times has handled this matter,” announced Dr. Jeffrey P. Jones, executive director of the George Foster Peabody Awards.
“We will receive the return of the award, recognizing the mutual respect both organizations have for each other’s longstanding record of journalistic integrity.”
And on Friday, the Times appended a long editors’ note to an earlier story authored by Callimachi about a Syrian journalist who claimed to have seen three American hostages held by ISIS in 2013. The paper said that while it confirmed the subject had seen several hostages, on other occasions he “had given inconsistent accounts of key elements of the episode to Times journalists and others.”
The reports conclude an embarrassing saga for the paper, in which it was forced to reckon with a very public rebuke of one of its top star’s reporting. Outlets including The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, and the Times itself all reported that there were previous concerns from staffers about Callimachi’s reporting and sourcing—which were dismissed at the time by some editors and higher-ups.
Some of Callimachi’s own former sources also voiced displeasure with her reporting, saying she misrepresented information. “She left our family with a lot of pain from her un-professionalism and lies,” said Michael Foley, who came into contact with Callimachi after his brother James Foley was captured and later beheaded by ISIS militants.
Over the past several months, Times staffers have waited for the conclusion of both investigations with the understanding that the results could have major implications for the newsroom. Reporters and editors have pressed the paper on the results, which Baquet assured staff would be revealed soon. Investigators played the information close to the vest, asking Times staff interviewed not to share any information about the probe with colleagues at the paper in an attempt to keep the information siloed while the investigation progressed.
One of Callimachi’s biggest longtime internal backers, Times editor Joseph Kahn, has been seen as one of the possible successors for current Executive Editor Baquet. But Kahn has faced scrutiny for his handling of complaints about Callimachi’s work, which some staff hoped would be addressed in the internal report. The Daily Beast reported this year that Kahn had received complaints about Callimachi’s work from Foley’s family in 2015.
“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 2 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 said in a letter to Kahn in 2015.