The New York Times issued a retraction today for its 12-part Caliphate podcast, after a two month internal review found that the 2018 Peabody Award-winning series had been overcredulous with the accounts of one of the main protagonists of the podcast, Shehroze Chaudhry, a Canadian national who claimed to have been an executioner for ISIS.
The retraction is the culmination of two internal Times probes into the factual accuracy of the podcast series after Shehroze was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in September. The RCMP charged him with hoax-terrorist activity. In other words, they accused him of lying about everything he claimed to have done for ISIS.
Following the news of Shehroze’s arrest, other allegations around the work of the podcast’s host, Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, began to surface. The Daily Beast revealed that Callimachi had threatened the family of ISIS hostage James Foley that she would publish a story on the torture of the late reporter should they refuse to be interviewed by her just days after his beheading was broadcast by ISIS in 2014. Despite his family conceding to her demands, the story was published anyway. The incident followed letters by Michael Foley, the reporter’s brother, to the Times disputing various lurid claims Callimachi made regarding his captivity, including his being singled out for severe torture and a conversion to Islam.
In response to online criticism after Shehroze’s arrest, Callimachi claimed that the “narrative tension” of Caliphate was whether Shehroze’s accounts of ISIS life were true, saying that the sixth episode of the podcast “exposes both what we know he lied about, explores the conundrum of what to do when you discover that a source has lied, and lays out for readers what we know to be fact and equally the many things we still don’t know”.
In an editor’s note added to the Times’ Caliphate webpage today, the Times says:
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. 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.
The note continues by stating that the series “should have had the regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter”, and that the Times should have “pressed harder to verify Mr. Chaudhry’s claims before deciding to place so much emphasis on one individual’s account”.
Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, stated in an interview with Michael Barbaro, Times Daily podcast host, “But this failing isn’t about any one reporter. I think this was an institutional failing”, adding that he now believed that Shehroze had “made up most if not all that he told us”.
Before the retraction and the allegations of threatening the next of kin of someone executed on camera by ISIS, Callimachi had already come under flak for her The ISIS Files series. The removal of nearly 16,000 ISIS documents from Iraq by Callimachi and her team was described as “pillage”, but the tipping point was when it was discovered that the Times had published the documents without any redactions, with names and other identifying information present in them for all to see. Following much online outcry by Iraqis, academics and other journalists, the documents were returned to the Iraqi embassy in Washington DC, after being digitized by the George Washington University, with the Program on Extremism team claiming that all personally identifying information in the digital copies had been redacted.
Articles under Rukmini’s byline have not appeared in the Times since the beginning of the review. According to Baquet, she will stay on at the Times, albeit covering a different beat. In a Twitter statement posted after the retraction notice, Callimachi apologized to readers for “what we missed and what we got wrong”, saying that she would be correcting the record and doing better in the future.
Despite all this, the damage has already been done. Public fascination with Caliphate and the idea of an ISIS executioner living freely in Toronto is alleged to have caused the shelving of Canadian plans to repatriate Canadian ISIS fighters and their family members following the territorial collapse of the caliphate, leaving them in limbo with neither a fair trial or any punishment for what they did do on the horizon. Shehroze’s next court appearance for his fabrications is scheduled for January 25.