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A case study of journalistic negligence

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The New York Times Building. Photo by Adam Jones CC 2.0

The story was sensational. A 25-year-old Canadian confessed to being radicalized by ISIS and recruited into travelling to Syria and actually performing executions for the terrorist organization, which he described in graphic detail.

Mainstream media jumped on the story, none harder than the august New York Times, which used Shehroze Chaudhry's confession as the centrepiece of a 12-part audio podcast it published under the title Caliphate in 2018.

The series not only won high journalistic acclaim -- including a coveted Peabody Award for host Rukmini Callimachi and colleague Andy Mills -- but it was hailed by top editors as representing the modern New York Times. "It's ambitious, rigorous, hard-nosed reporting combined with first-rate digital storytelling," said Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor at the paper and a scion of the Sulzberger family that owns it.

At a time when newspapers are losing their audience and failing across North America, Caliphate paid huge dividends to the Times, in terms of journalistic prestige, new listeners for its podcasts and new paying subscribers. And it further propelled Callimachi into the journalistic stratosphere as the best there was at covering the world's toughest beat -- international terrorism.

The only problem is, none of it appears to be true

On Friday, the Times issued a stunning retraction of its high-profile podcast after an internal review found that it "did not meet the standards for Times journalism." Its top editor, Dean Baquet, labeled it "an institutional failing," noting that it was not subjected to skepticism or verification by either him or his top deputies, as should have been done. Although no one appears to have been fired for those lapses yet, terrorism beat reporter Callimachi has been assigned to another beat.

Baquet's words oddly echo what his predecessors said after a similar debacle at the paper nearly 20 years ago that ranks as one of journalism's most celebrated scandals. A young reporter named Jayson Blair was forced to resign in 2003 after the discovery of plagiarism and fabrication in his stories. The Times called Blair's transgressions "unprecedented," and fired top editor Howell Raines and a deputy, Gerald Boyd.

You can make the case that the same fate should befall Baquet today, given how long he and his top editors stood by a disintegrating story. 

Alarm bells should have rung louder even before last September, when Chaudhry, of Burlington, Ont., was arrested in Canada and charged with what the RCMP called "a hoax regarding terrorist activity." Police alleged he made false claims that were published in "multiple media outlets, aired on podcasts and featured on a television documentary, raising public safety concerns amongst Canadians."

Instead of investigating its own story, the Times defended its reporting to rival newspapers. Callimachi, the series reporter, hired stringers in Syria to find evidence that Chaudhry had in fact been in Syria and was a member of ISIS before he escaped. According to one person hired, she wasn't interested in knowing anything else. She also cast doubt on the RCMP investigation in a series of tweets.

Baquet, the man in charge, said last week in an interview broadcast on National Public Radio: "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."

When he finally assigned three top reporters to factcheck the series, its reporting and Chaudhry's claims, the full impact of the paper's trust in a star reporter and lack of oversight of the project hit home.

An Editor's Note noted that the investigation "found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the 'Caliphate' podcast," adding that "the episodes of 'Caliphate' that presented Mr. Chaudhry's claims did not meet our standards for accuracy."

An audio correction will be added to the podcast's episodes to ensure listeners understand the Time's stance and its retraction.

On multiple occasions prior to the release of the podcast, Chaudhry had told Canadian news outlets that he had traveled to Syria in 2014 and joined ISIS. He denied playing any role in killings. But in vivid detail, Chaudhry, speaking under the pseudonym Abu Huzayfah, told Callimachi and her colleagues producing Caliphate of the atrocities he witnessed in Syria and of his involvement in execution-style killings.

Baquet says the Times did not have evidence Chaudhry had ever been to Syria. Nor could it show he had joined ISIS, much less killed civilians for the group. The man's account proved to be riddled with holes and contradictions. In handling such discrepancies, tthe reporting and producing team sought ways to show his story could still turn out to be true.

Baquet says top editors long accustomed to editing complex written investigative pieces were deferential to an experienced reporter and an ambitious audio investigative team presenting a compelling narrative yarn. He says he shares in that blame.

"I thought we produced another, you know, 'Holy damn!' story," Baquet recalled. "I was really proud of it. Another big story to embrace and applaud."

It is alarming to read this. A core value of journalism is the discipline of verification. Editors like Baquet are responsible for establishing a culture of the highest vigilance, especially for stories that they want to use to win credibility and readership. Especially for marquee pieces that they intend to submit for journalistic competitions.

With the benefit of self-reflection, and the wisdom of his 64 years, Baquet may have the grace to resign before he is pushed.

Callimachi, a noted terrorism correspondent, is from all accounts a journalist of high achievement. She has won some of the most distinguished honors in foreign reporting and is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She joined the Times in 2014. Baquet says editors relied on her judgment to guide their own when it came to Caliphate. He said he cannot in good conscience assign her to terrorism stories again.

While we wait for perhaps more Times icons to pay the price for this misadventure, we can ponder the hollowness of journalistic acclaim. 

The Times offered to return the Peabody Award and the awards' executive director accepted. The Overseas Press Club also rescinded its Lowell Thomas Award. Caliphate was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, although thankfully it did not win.

All the news that's fit to print is the motto of the New York Times

It shouldn't be. Not in this case.

Photo: The New York Times Building. Photo by Adam Jones CC 2.0

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