The New York Times was forced to retract the core of award-winning podcast “Caliphate” after it was revealed the series relied on the words of an alleged ISIS fighter under investigation for lying about his involvement with the terrorist group.
The Times failed to heed several warnings that the man who played a central role in the series, Shehroze Chaudhry, was not telling the truth. Many journalists, notably Erik Wemple of The Washington Post and Hassan Hassan of Newlines magazine, questioned the accuracy of the journalist’s, Rukmini Callimachi, reporting and reliance on Chaudhry.
The podcast, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won a Peabody award, centered on the radicalization of a young Canadian who went to Syria to join ISIS who alleged he became an executioner for the group before escaping. Chaudhry, however, has been accused by Canadian authorities of lying about those activities, currently facing criminal charges for perpetrating a terrorism hoax.
Another red flag, Chaudhry changed his story while speaking on the podcast, recanting his previous statement that he had participated in any executions.
Despite this, as New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet described to NPR, the outlet was blindsided by what it believed to be an exclusive scoop:
“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. 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.”
What’s more, the Times assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick hyped the programming as “represent[ing] the modern New York Times”:
“Caliphate represents the modern New York Times. It’s ambitious, rigorous, hard-nosed reporting combined with first-rate digital storytelling. We’re taking our audience to dangerous places they have never been, and we’re doing it with more transparency than we ever have before.”
Now, however, atop each Caliphate episode and editor’s note explaining the series shouldn’t have relied on Chaudhry nor did it meet the paper’s standards for accuracy or fact-checking. The episodes are still live on the Times site, but when executive editor Dean Baquet was asked whether Caliphate should be retracted, he responded “I guess for the parts that were about Chaudhry and his history and his background. Yeah, I think it is. Sure does.”
He added he’d work with Callimachi to find a new assignment, noting “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.”