The Media Today

Caliphate, the 1619 Project, the Times, and the culture

October 14, 2020

It was a banner weekend for drama at the New York Times. On Friday, Bret Stephens, a conservative opinion writer at the paper, published a lengthy column excoriating the 1619 Project, a major Times Magazine initiative that debuted last year and centers slavery in the telling of the American story; he called it “a thesis in search of evidence” that, through its “overreach,” has “given critics of the Times a gift.” Later, a tweet from the account of the union representing Times staff hit back at Stephens for “going after” his colleagues (“the act, like the article, reeks”); the tweet was subsequently deleted after some union members objected. Then, on Sunday, Ben Smith, the paper’s media columnist, dropped a forensic article investigating the work of his colleague Rukmini Callimachi, a prominent terrorism correspondent. As the veteran reporter Walter Shapiro noted on Twitter, the Times suddenly “has more intramural disputes than the Village Voice in the 1970s.”

Aspects of Callimachi’s terrorism reporting have long been contested and controversial, but it’s come under fresh, fierce scrutiny since late September, when police in Canada arrested a man named Shehroze Chaudhry, who goes by the alias Abu Huzayfah, and charged him with faking his supposed past as an ISIS executioner. Chaudhry’s claims were a key part of Caliphate, a flagship Times podcast that Callimachi hosted. Both Callimachi and the Times initially defended Caliphate, arguing that doubts as to Chaudhry’s truthfulness were at the heart of its narrative, but media critics disputed that claim—the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple argued that the show actually “heaped credibility” on Chaudhry—and the Times pledged to conduct a “fresh examination” of Callimachi’s reporting and Chaudhry’s place in it.

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Outlets including the Post, the Daily Beast, and the New Republic subsequently excavated more problems with Caliphate and other Callimachi controversies, including her story about a Syrian journalist whose claims also proved shaky; ethical concerns around her purchase of the rights (as reported by the Beast) to video footage of a dead American soldier in Niger; the accusation that she treated the family of James Foley, an American journalist killed by ISIS in 2014, with “extreme unprofessionalism and threats”; and a story presenting supposed ISIS receipts that an independent expert consulted by the Times subsequently concluded were forged, an incident that Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, explored in detail earlier this year. (The Times denies that Callimachi purchased the Niger video herself—it says that the video was “licensed by the Times”—and has said that her messages to the Foley family were “appropriate,” and that criticisms of the receipts story were clearly handled in a follow-up article, though observers have disputed that clarity was achieved. The Times also notes that Asaad Almohammad, a researcher who provided the receipts to Callimachi, has stood by their authenticity.)

Smith’s column offered new details on some of these incidents and also sought to situate Callimachi’s work in the context of the Times as an institution—a task that was “a bit of a nightmare,” he wrote, since it involved reporting on his bosses. He tracked a series of fraught editorial conversations around Caliphate, noted Callimachi’s standing with various newsroom power players, and—importantly—assessed her work as the product of a broader shift at the paper, from “stodgy” print reporting to the “juicy” narrative demands of multimedia journalism. “While some of the coverage has portrayed her as a kind of rogue actor at the Times,” Smith concluded, of Callimachi, “my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support.”

Where they’ve been linked at all, the Callimachi controversy and Stephens’s column on the 1619 Project have been assessed through the ever-tantalizing prism of newsroom politics, reigniting perennial debates as to whether Times staffers should be allowed to criticize each other (Shapiro and others argued that they should), whether superstar journalists have too much clout at the paper (Nikole Hannah-Jones has come to be just as synonymous with the 1619 Project as Callimachi is with Caliphate), and whether the paper should reinstate its public editor position to weigh in on all of the above. (In 2015, Margaret Sullivan, who then held that position and is now at the Post, did tackle one controversy involving Callimachi; after the position was eliminated, CJR appointed Snyder to do a similar job from the outside. We also assigned public editors to cover the Post, CNN, and MSNBC.) These questions are all worth exploring; the perils of anointing some journalists as superstars is one I’ve written about at length, in the context of Smith’s reporting on Ronan Farrow.

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Look closely, though, and a more interesting link can be drawn between Callimachi’s work and the 1619 Project. They both reflect the impulse, raised by Smith, toward sweeping, ambitious narrative journalism—an impulse that has helped establish the Times as a dominant cultural phenomenon, not just a media one. And, viewed through such a lens, they offer insight on the thorny, contrasting demands of journalism and history.

Both journalism and history are concerned, to a great extent, with verifiable fact. I won’t say more here about the various claims of factual inaccuracy against Callimachi; they’ve been exhaustively documented in the links I include above, and the Times’s re-examination of Caliphate is ongoing. Critics of the 1619 Project, too, have pointed to factual errors, most notably a passage, written by Hannah-Jones, claiming that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Earlier this year, the Times amended this claim to clarify that protecting slavery was not a primary motivation of all the colonists; Hannah-Jones, for her part, recently told the Post that she wishes she’d been more careful with her wording and that she’s “absolutely tortured” that the error proved to be rich fodder for critics.

Other factual claims against the 1619 Project, however, are flimsy. In his column, Stephens, drawing on the critiques of other right-wing commentators, focuses on the supposed removal from the 1619 Project of the claim that it’s “wrong” to call 1776 America’s birth date because the “true” date is 1619, when slaves first arrived on American shores. But Jake Silverstein, the editor in chief of the Times Magazine, who wrote those words, told the Post that the changes reflect normal editorial tidying, not a stealth retreat. And, more pertinently, there’s nothing wrong with the original wording. As Hannah-Jones has pointed out, the reference to 1619 here is, to some extent, metaphorical—in the same way that Barack Obama used metaphor when he described John Lewis, the civil-rights leader who died this summer, as a “founding father.”

In this context, the invocation of metaphor isn’t an attempt to slip away from criticism; rather, it drives at a broader historical truth about America’s founding. History—even when rendered by journalists (a practice to which Stephens, apparently, vigorously objects)—has such license because the way we talk about the past is an ever-mutating process of interpretation, claim, counterclaim, and revision. The purpose of the 1619 Project was to start a debate—or expand an existing one—about America’s most fundamental story by coming at it from a point of view that has historically been marginalized. Critics—from Stephens to President Trump, who has publicly cast the 1619 Project as anti-American propaganda and threatened to curtail federal funds to schools that teach it—are, obviously, participating in that debate, even if some of them might prefer to shut it down. As Hannah-Jones has previously written, thanks in no small part to Trump and his allies, the year 1619 is now “part of the national lexicon. That cannot be undone, no matter how hard they try.”

Such narrative and cultural sweep is less appropriate when it comes to reporting on knotty contemporary topics whose details remain murky. Middle Eastern terrorism is one such topic—there’s a broader truth to be found, for sure, but it first must be built on the meticulous, careful accumulation of facts. To be sure, Callimachi has contributed to this accumulation. But the consequences of making mistakes, and of grand narrative framing, are way more urgent than angering Bret Stephens and some Ivy League historians; as Smith and others have noted, Callimachi’s critics argue that her work has played into harmful broader tropes about Islam and terrorism, and even helped inform Canada’s decision not to repatriate some citizens from the Middle East.

There’s also the important question, here, of who gets to build grand narratives. The 1619 Project is so important because its express purpose is to expand the conversation and loosen conservative white America’s hegemonic grip on a national truth. By contrast, reporting on ISIS—by Callimachi, the Times, and many others—has often been accused of glossing over the voices of people in the Middle East and the broader context of terrorism, a story that does not paint the US in a good light. As Laila Al Arian, an executive producer at Al Jazeera, told the New Republic, the Callimachi controversy isn’t about isolated mistakes; it drives at a bigger question of “who’s considered an authority and who isn’t, who gets space to talk and who doesn’t.”

As I wrote last year, in an article contrasting the richness of the 1619 Project with the poverty of much Times coverage of Trump’s contemporary racism, the paper contains multitudes, and their guiding spirits don’t always seem to inform each other as well as they could. Its latest drama offers more proof of that. It is proof, too, that shared spirits or not, the Times’s multitudes shouldn’t all be funneled through the same narrative forms.

Below, more on the Times:

  • More on 1619: Yesterday, Sarah Ellison, a media reporter at the Post, published an excellent story chronicling how “the 1619 Project took over 2020”; among other rich details, Ellison reports that Hannah-Jones was “livid” about Stephens’s column. The Times defended publishing the column in the name of open debate, but yesterday, Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, wrote a memo to colleagues defending the 1619 Project as “one of the most important pieces of journalism” of his tenure. Stephens, Baquet noted, “raised questions about the journalistic ethics and standards of 1619” and the broader work of Hannah-Jones that “I firmly reject.”
  • More on the Callimachi controversy: On Twitter, Kendra Pierre-Louis, a former Times reporter who now works for Gimlet, shared a quote from Smith’s column in which a former colleague accused Callimachi of having her story “pre-reported in her head” and “looking for someone to tell her what she already believed.” Pierre-Louis wrote that while she has “no insight” into the production of Caliphate, the quote “is true of my experience working at NYT. You had to write a very detailed reporting memo to get your trip approved and God help you if you came back with a story that deviated.”
  • At War no more: Yesterday, Lauren Katzenberg, the editor of the Times’s “At War” section, said that the section will be wound down this week. (Its newsletter will continue; staff who worked on the section will either be reassigned or continue their work via different channels.) “There are fewer and fewer spaces that exist to examine the experiences of war and the toll they’ve taken on both Americans and the citizens of other nations for whom the cost of recent conflicts is almost insurmountable, yet too often forgotten,” Katzenberg wrote on Twitter.
  • Exit, stage left: Ben Brantley will leave the Times tomorrow after twenty-seven years as a theater critic for the paper; he told his colleague Jesse Green that he isn’t tired of reviewing, but found himself chafing at the “place-holding journalism” required during quarantine. Brantley says that during a recent Zoom meeting with the paper’s critics, he heard Baquet “linger over the question of whether arts reviewers should stay in their jobs indefinitely,” and thought, “That sounds like an exit cue to me.”

Other notable stories:

  • Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing continued yesterday, with senators questioning her record and her views on abortion, healthcare, presidential power, and more. Barrett would not be drawn on many of the questions, but insisted repeatedly that she will not shill for Trump. The hearing continues today. In related news, the Court’s existing bench ruled that the Trump administration can halt the census count while lower-court appeals are worked out. The verdict effectively curtailed the count altogether—a fact critics fear the White House will be able to exploit for partisan gain.
  • The Trump administration is waging war on a book again. Yesterday, the Justice Department accused Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former aide to Melania Trump who wrote a tell-all about the first lady, of breaching a nondisclosure agreement and failing to submit her manuscript for prepublication review. Officials asked a court to confiscate Winston Wolkoff’s profits; she denies wrongdoing, and says that the Justice Department is attempting to violate her First Amendment rights. Steve Holland has more for Reuters.
  • More controversy at the US Agency for Global Media: according to Sara Fischer, of Axios, the agency is withholding funding from the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit that it supports to work on internet-freedom issues, and is reaching out to OTF grantees asking them to apply to a new body called the Office of Internet Freedom. Grantees are alarmed that USAGM had access to their details, Fischer writes, since OTF “manages sensitive work with journalists and technologists” in areas with limited internet freedom.
  • The Texas Observer is launching an Indigenous Affairs desk in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and has hired Pauly Denetclaw, formerly of the Navajo Times, to help run it. Other newsrooms will be able to republish the desk’s stories for free. “Indigenous communities and stories represent the most underserved by journalists in Texas,” Tristan Ahtone, the Observer’s editor in chief and a member of the Kiowa Tribe, says. Other outlets, he writes, only tend to cover “casinos and powwows.”
  • In other media-jobs news, Bon Appétit continued to overhaul its YouTube channel, appointing eight new hosts to replace those who quit this summer amid allegations of racism at the company. Elsewhere, Alexis Johnson, who was barred from covering protests for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over a tweet, then quit the paper, has a new job at VICE. And Ashley Spinks, the sole remaining reporter at the Floyd Press, in Virginia, says the paper’s owner, Lee Enterprises, fired her for giving an interview about her work.
  • Mike Hale, a TV critic at the Times, sings the praises of PBS, which turned fifty earlier this month. More than any other network, PBS and its member stations “educate us to be better citizens,” Hale writes. “The viewer who partakes of the breadth of PBS’s public-affairs offerings will be much better informed about the realities of contemporary American life than the more numerous citizens who depend on cable news.”
  • Ethan Berkowitz, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, resigned following a wild series of events that led to the disclosure of his “inappropriate messaging relationship” with Maria Athens, a local TV anchor. According to the Anchorage Daily News, Athens made unsubstantiated allegations involving Berkowitz and an “underage girl’s website,” posted what she claimed was a nude photo of his butt, and left a death threat on his voicemail.
  • And Dan Baum has died. In 2009, he recounted his firing from the New Yorker in a string of tweets—a seminal event in early Media Twitter. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton writes that Baum “helped show that Twitter could be a medium for something more complex than 140 characters—for the combination of personal storytelling and real-time unfolding that have marked some of the best that the newsiest social media platform can offer.”

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Update: This article has been updated to clarify controversies around Rukmini Callimachi’s reporting and to incorporate a post-publication comment from the Times.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.