New York Times public editor: Callimachi is not Jayson Blair, but questions remain

Rukmini Callimachi’s reporting for the New York Times’ wildly popular Caliphate podcast series has long been subject to a swirling controversy. Multiple reports, including some published in the Times itself, shed doubts on the series and Callimachi’s other terrorism reporting. Throughout, the Times itself, as an institution, remained mostly silent. 

That all changed on Friday morning—with an editors’ note, a news story reporting their own re-investigation, another news story about the investigation, and a pair of interviews given by executive editor Dean Baquet to the host of the Times’ flagship podcast, The Daily, and another with NPR

The short of it all: “The Times has concluded that the episodes of Caliphate that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.” Callimachi, meanwhile, is being moved off the beat, jihadist extremism, that had made her a star. “She’s going to take on a new beat, and she and I are discussing possibilities,” Baquet told one of the set of Times reporters he spoke to. “I think it’s hard to continue covering terrorism after what happened with this story. But I think she’s a fine reporter.” 

The first doubts about Caliphate emerged almost as soon as the series was released, in the spring of 2018: conservative members of Canada’s parliament used the narrative it presented—an isis executioner now living freely in Toronto—as a political cudgel against the government for being soft on terrorists. The political skirmish in Ottawa resulted in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tracking down Shehroze Chaudhry, and to his publicly admitting to making up the stories in Caliphate. “You can put me through a polygraph and it will prove that I didn’t kill anyone,” he told the CBC in May 2018. Asked why he had told Callimachi otherwise, he said, “I was being childish. I was describing what I saw and basically, I was close enough to think it was me.” (His claim to have witnessed executions also now appears to have been a lie.)

Up until Chaudhry’s arrest on terrorism hoax charges on September 25, the Times stood fully behind Caliphate, pointing to an episode in the series that was added to respond to the questions about the veracity of his claims. And immediately after his arrest, the paper issued a statement that concluded, “The uncertainty about Abu Huzayfah’s story [a reference to the alias Chaudhry used] is central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him.”

So why the change today? For its part, the Times has been saying that it was waiting for the conclusion of its own re-examination of Chaudhry. And while the one published today is thorough and uncovers new inconsistencies in Chaudhry’s accounts over time, it isn’t so much a fresh revelation as the announcement that the Times has finally reached the same conclusion as Canadian prosecutors and American intelligence officials. The most important question left for readers is: What took them so long? 

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(When I asked Baquet that question, he told me, “I think we had an obligation to do our own independent reporting before drawing a conclusion about the veracity of the key figure in the series. We finished that reporting this week.”)

I first heard of concerns about Callimachi’s reporting over a year ago, related to a story she wrote about the killing of isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that relied on documents with disputed authenticity. I included the incident in a column this past summer about the Times’ sluggishness to correct major factual errors. No editors involved in the story responded to my multiple requests to discuss the matter.

The delay in weighing in as an institution on the Caliphate matter was a disservice, first and foremost, to Times readers, but also to Callimachi, who has worked under a cloud of suspicion while basic questions—does the paper stand behind her work or not?—lingered unanswered. Today’s statements offered a clear, if narrow, answer: the Times no longer stands fully behind Caliphate (though it is still offering the series, unedited, for download). 

Reached for comment, Callimachi pointed me to a statement she posted on Twitter, which read in part, “Reflecting on what I missed in reporting our podcast is humbling. Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting.”

While Baquet did refer to institutional failings that allowed the podcast to go forward without the kind of editorial oversight the Times generally gives to its highest-profile publications, the announcements published today largely sidestepped questions about the operations and internal politics that some within the Times have been saying gave rise to problem.

(Baquet disagreed with that categorization. “We were also very, very clear that there were institutional failings in a podcast, an editor’s note, and a two-thousand-word story,” he told me. “Frankly, I think this was a very transparent undertaking.”)

In many ways, Callimachi has been a prototypical example of the kind of reporter the Times has been saying it wants ever since its Innovation Report, a 2014 document that demanded a different metabolism in the newsroom in order to keep the business viable. The report was completed just a couple of months after the Times hired Callimachi: a gifted storyteller, adept at maintaining a social media presence and versatile at working in audio and visual formats. 

When speaking to people about Callimachi over the past year, one of the refrains I heard frequently was that “this is not Jayson Blair.” That scandal, in the early 2000s, perhaps the largest the Times has ever faced, involved a young reporter making outright fabrications, and led to the departure of the executive editor at the time, Howell Raines. 

But though there are differences, there are also echoes. Raines wasn’t pushed out simply because a fabulist had sullied the paper on his watch. It was, rather, a kind of referendum on his entire project to revamp the newsroom. 

Similar questions arising today are more than inside baseball: What standards does the Times believe its newsroom must uphold as it remakes itself? And what does accountability at the Times look like when reporters and high-ranking editors fail to meet them? Readers are still waiting for those answers.

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Gabriel Snyder is a contributing editor to CJR.

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