New York Times retracts ‘Caliphate’ podcast episodes about ISIS, citing inaccuracies

The New York Times has retracted significant portions of “Caliphate,” its award-winning podcast about ISIS, after Canadian police arrested its key source for allegedly perpetrating a terrorist hoax.

On Friday, the New York Times published a lengthy editors’ note explaining the retraction, which followed an internal review concluding that certain episodes “did not meet our standards for accuracy.” The half-hour audio version of the editors’ note is now offered as a prologue to the podcast series, which remains available in full on the outlet’s website.

The episodes in question — which made up much of the podcast — centered on a man who used the pseudonym Abu Huzayfah when allegedly lying to NYT about committing murders as a member of the Islamic State in Syria. Huzayfah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, is accused of fabricating his eyewitness accounts of terrorism.

“From the outset, ‘Caliphate’ should have had the regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter,” the NYT note read. “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. …

“It is also clear that elements of the original fact-checking process were not sufficiently rigorous: Times journalists were too credulous about the verification steps that were undertaken and dismissive of the lack of corroboration of essential aspects of Mr. Chaudhry’s account.”

The newspaper also has reassigned terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who hosted “Caliphate” and won a Peabody Award in 2019 for her work on the podcast. “Caliphate” and Callimachi have come under scrutiny in the past for allegedly pitting “profit and the race for more subscribers against journalistic integrity,” as the Los Angeles Times’ Lorraine Ali put it shortly after Chaudhry’s arrest.

“I am fiercely proud of the stories I have broken on ISIS and its crimes against humanity,” Callimachi wrote in a statement released Friday. “But as journalists, we demand transparency from our sources, so we should expect it from ourselves. Reflecting on what I missed in reporting our podcast is humbling.

“Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting. I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told us, and I should have. I added caveats to try to make clear what we knew and what we didn’t. It wasn’t enough. To our listeners, I apologize for what we missed and what we got wrong.”

Prior to the recent investigations, the NYT was at one point in talks to turn “Caliphate” into a TV series, according to an interview Sam Dolnick did with the Hollywood Reporter in April 2019. He is NYT’s assistant managing editor for audio, film, television and other digital projects.

“It’s a cinematic experience and absolutely lends itself to TV,” Dolnick said of the podcast. “There was a lot of interest from Hollywood. There will be news soon.”

When “Caliphate” launched in 2018 as part of a push for multimedia expansion, the NYT included an episode outlining potential holes in Chaudhry’s narrative and spotlighting vetting efforts made by the outlet to corroborate aspects of his story.

“The hoax charge led The Times to investigate what Canadian officials had discovered, and to re-examine Mr. Chaudhry’s account and the earlier efforts to determine its validity,” Friday’s editors’ note continues.

“This new examination found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the ‘Caliphate’ podcast.”

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