Ten Ways of Looking at a Califail

"The New York Times should really introspect about its overall coverage of the Middle East, because otherwise these things are going to keep happening"

It’s a worst-case scenario for any journalist to be taken in by a hoaxster. The capacity for a source to lie is a fundamental vulnerability of journalism, and one that reporters generally go to great lengths to mitigate through rigorous verification.

Sometimes, however, that verification isn’t quite as rigorous as it ought to be. And then bad things can happen.

Last September, the RCMP laid a rare charge of perpetrating a terrorist hoax against Shehroze Chaudhry, a 25-year-old from Burlington, Ontario, who had claimed in various media interviews that in 2016 he’d travelled to Syria to join ISIS. “The interviews were published in multiple media outlets, aired on podcasts, and featured on a television documentary, raising public safety concerns amongst Canadians,” the RCMP stated.

The mention of podcasts was presumably a reference to Caliphate, the 2018 audio series from The New York Times that was largely built around Chaudhry’s tale of his stint with ISIS and the violent acts he claimed to have committed on its behalf. The show won a Peabody, was a finalist for a Pulitzer, and shaped Canadian political discourse around the question of what to do with returning ISIS fighters.

While the RCMP’s allegations have still yet to be tested in court, the charge placed a great deal of scrutiny on previously identified inconsistencies in the account of Chaudhry, who in his media appearances had gone by “Abu Huzayfah.” In particular, it prompted the Times to undertake an investigation into whether the core narrative of Caliphate had been extruded from a lie.

Turns out, it was. Or at least, key elements were, while others were simply unverifiable. The Times concluded that the standards of verification and corroboration normally applied to its print reporting had not been upheld by its podcast. They retracted the Huzayfah-centric episodes, returned the Peabody, had the Pulitzer citation revoked, and reassigned star reporter and Caliphate co-host Rukmini Callimachi away from the terrorism beat. (Although there’s yet to be any indication that the show’s lead producer and other co-host, Andy Mills, has received similar censure.)

But still. It’s The New York Times. It’s one thing for Vice to credulously run the account of a profit-seeking prankster, but for one of the best-resourced news operations in the world to err so monumentally, chances are good that at least a few different kinds of missteps and institutional failings were at play.

Today’s episode of CANADALAND attempts to untangle several of the many threads of this Califail. Host Jesse Brown speaks to Laila Al-Arian, the executive producer of Fault Lines at Al Jazeera English, who sees this as just the latest manifestation of longstanding deficiencies with Times reporting on the Middle East; Erik Wemple, The Washington Post‘s media critic, who views it as a case of the Times being in thrall to both a star reporter and itself; and to Jolenta Greenberg, an author and host of the By The Book podcast, who believes it speaks to the podcast industry’s absorption of the kind of baggage that public radio knows too well, of men who repeatedly manage to escape accountability. (Callimachi told CANADALAND that she’s not allowed to speak about Caliphate; Mills didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

You can, of course, hear the whole episode in the widget below. But we’ve also pulled out some of the takeaways, a little further below that.

The people we spoke to see the failure of Caliphate as a matter of…

…different standards being applied when it comes to coverage of the Middle East.

Laila Al-Arian: I feel that oftentimes in the so-called terrorism beat, there’s different standards: different standards of professionalism and oftentimes a lack of scrutiny of the work, and I argue it’s because it often confirms people’s worst fears and their worst beliefs and their biases and blind spots when it comes to the region.…I do think The New York Times should really introspect about its overall coverage of the Middle East and about how it can be improved, because otherwise, if you do as they did — which is blame the medium of audio, instead of taking a wider look at why is it that we cover this region of the world in this way, why is it that we lack skepticism that we apply elsewhere in our coverage to coverage of this region of the world — then I think we’re just going to end up right where we began, and these things are going to keep happening.

…a bizarre misconception that standards are lower in audio journalism than in print.

Jolenta Greenberg: News organizations know how to check their stories. Like I know where Andy Mills worked, at Radiolab, they were held to very strict journalistic guidelines, as is everyone at WNYC. It is a news organization, first and foremost. So to think all of a sudden those standards didn’t apply at the Times and they were forgotten by him is, uh, a bit silly to me.

…hubristic tunnel vision.

Erik Wemple: When The New York Times entered the digital age, for example, a lot of competitors, a lot of other news organizations, were miffed that it did not properly credit them, that it did not properly link to them, that it did not properly acknowledge their work on the same subject. I mean, The New York Times is an amazing news source, but it doesn’t break every story. Things have, at the Times, have gotten much, much better over the years. But this is sort of a throwback situation. I mean, even if The New York Times had — and it did — get the interview first, it doesn’t mean they can’t credit other news organizations with having a different set of facts. You can still say, “Well, you know, this is what he told us first and this is what he told these other organizations next.”

…the people behind the show lacking certain relevant expertise.

Al-Arian: If you look at the team that worked on the podcast, there were no Muslims on it. I don’t believe anybody spoke Arabic. And there was a large reckoning within the media industry over the summer when, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd [there was] what I thought was a really useful conversation about how do we tell stories in a way that’s authentic and how do we make our industry more inclusive. And I think that should definitely also apply to the coverage of the Middle East. You need people who know what they’re talking about. You need people who speak the language, who understand the culture, who don’t sensationalize or exoticize the culture and essentialize it.

…podcasts increasingly coming to resemble legacy media and not in a good way.

Greenberg: I’m watching this industry go from being something I did with a friend in my closet 12 years ago to something I do to make the bulk of my living, as does my partner, as do many, many people. And I’m also seeing the industry starting to bring in so much money that the doors of accessibility are closing: celebrities are being handed the podcasts, and the best storytellers, the best producers, and other voices are starting to be pushed out. And I feel like we’re sort of at this turning point, of these gates almost closing. And I don’t want them to, before we get better representation in there, at least. Or don’t let them close, and point out that, like, the amount of money a news show brings in shouldn’t justify lack of accountability.

…newsrooms missing diverse perspectives.

Al-Arian: I do think for the most part, Middle East correspondents in the U.S. mainstream media do tend to be white. They do tend to be disconnected from the region. And I don’t think just because you’re disconnected from the region, it means that you’re going to do bad work. I don’t actually come to that conclusion immediately. I do think if you have a connection to the region, then oftentimes that work is better informed, it’s more nuanced, it’s more in context, it’s less exoticized or essentialized. So I do think it’s important to have these discussions about inclusion and how do you have a newsroom that’s more informed and that looks more diverse — but not just looks more diverse, [that] actually has different perspectives. Because you can all come from the same sort of milieu, and you can look different but also kind of have the same life experience, the same socioeconomic background, and that oftentimes won’t add much. So it’s just important to have these deep conversations.

…impact being prioritized over rigour.

Wemple: [The Times‘] foreign correspondencies are plum positions, and they are overseas and they are basically put in places where there’s a lot of news happening. And a lot of that job is doing unfolding events. You’re covering stuff as it happens. It’s relatively tough to do.…And Rukmini came in, and what she was able to arrange for herself — and I think it’s through a lot of hard work — was [becoming] sort of this person who dropped in for these huge enterprise stories. Like, her stories — if you look at her clips, and so on and so forth — there are a lot of big takeouts. And I think that a lot of the journalists who had been working there noticed that this was quite an exceptional setup. My understanding of how they got along or didn’t get along related primarily to the content of what Callimachi was doing: they saw problems with the reporting. They saw that she was moving really fast on some of these stories and being a little sloppy. They knew a lot of the same sources she was relying on.…Rukmini was sort of parachuting in and doing these big things, and people — and I don’t think that they were wrong, either — saw problems with her, with the way she went about it, and sometimes with what ended up printed.…These people who helmed these foreign correspondency positions, they were serious journalists and still are. And I think that what pissed them off the most was that upper management wrote off their concerns as just, like, professional jealousy and the like. And that turned out not to have been the case.

…longstanding institutional shortcomings.

Al-Arian: Let’s go back to the war in Iraq itself and the fact that you had a [Times] reporter by the name of Judith Miller — but not just her, there were other reporters — who were laundering misinformation, fake news if you will, from discredited Iraqi dissidents and also people within the US intelligence community, within the Bush administration, who were hungry for war, hungry for selling this war to the public, even though it was really clear that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. But they took advantage of the fear and hysteria following 9/11. And they published lies. They published inaccurate information about Iraq’s supposed weapons-of-mass-destruction program.…To look back at The New York Times’ apology following the Iraq War, they admitted that they found instances of coverage that were not as rigorous as it should have been. And I think this lack of rigour also, when it comes to Caliphate, is a trend that you see. And I think there needs to be some soul-searching, some introspection about how to have that coverage of the Middle East be better informed and less based on tropes and stereotypes.

…meeting grand claims with enthusiasm rather than skepticism.

Wemple: There’s a part [of Caliphate] where Callimachi is, like, talking with Mills and voicing her frustrations about the beat. Where she talks about how, you know, “I’ve dealt with all these ISIS people coming back from ISIS, that maybe they saw something or maybe they heard about something, but they never admit to doing the act themselves.” That, to me, is a real, real telltale moment in the series, because it signals to me, at least in retrospect, that she was really excited about having this guy confessing and that the bar was going to be high for her to disbelieve him.

…confirmation bias.

Al-Arian: Dean Baquet [the executive editor of the Times, said they] fell in love with the story, or as Erik Wemple put it, they were rooting for the story. I would go a step further and say they were rooting for the story because it confirmed what people want to watch and hear, which is a brown Muslim man talking about stabbing someone in the heart, right? Like, these are the sort of sensationalist images that people yearn for that confirm people’s biases. But I don’t think they’re ready to have that conversation.

Top collage cobbled together from the Caliphate podcast art and a screencap of Andy Mills accepting the (since-returned) Peabody.

Correction (February 1, 2020, at 11:15 a.m. EST): This article originally identified Laila Al-Arian by a former title, senior producer of Fault Lines at Al Jazeera America. That network, in fact, closed down in 2016, and these days she’s the executive producer of Fault Lines at Al Jazeera English.

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