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New York Times retracts key parts of 2018 'Caliphate' podcast, reassigns terrorism reporter

The New York Times on Friday retracted key parts of its 2018 award-winning podcast “Caliphate” and reassigned the paper’s terrorism reporter after an internal review found that the paper failed to corroborate claims presented in the podcast. 

The paper instituted a more than two-month review of the 12-part audio documentary hosted by terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi that sought to give an inside look at the ISIS terrorist group. 

The investigation came after Canadian authorities arrested and charged Shehroze Chaudhry, a main subject of the podcast who claimed to have taken part in ISIS executions. Canadian authorities allege that Chaudhry lied about these activities, and currently faces criminal charges in a federal court in Ontario of advancing a terrorism hoax.

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In an editor’s note added to the series on Friday, the Times wrote that the internal investigation “concluded that the episodes of ‘Caliphate’ that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.”

Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said in a podcast interview scheduled to be posted by the Times on Friday that “when The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom.” 

“We did not do that in this case,” he added. “And I think that I or somebody else should have provided that same kind of scrutiny, because it was a big, ambitious piece of journalism. And I did not provide that kind of scrutiny, nor did my top deputies with deep experience in examining investigative reporting.”

In an interview with NPR on Thursday, Baquet said the paper “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 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,” Baquet added. 

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In Friday’s editor’s note, the paper explained that during the course of reporting the podcast series, the Times “discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies” in the stories told by Chaudhry, who identified himself as Abu Huzayfah in the podcast. 

The paper added that even after seeking to corroborate the information Chaudhry presented, including reaching out to U.S. intelligence officials, the publication decided to publish the story anyway while adding an episode “devoted to exploring major discrepancies and highlighting the fact-checking process that sought to verify key elements of the narrative,” the Times wrote Friday. 

However, the editor’s note said that, “From the outset, 'Caliphate' should have had the regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter. 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.”

“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 publication added. 

The editor’s note has been posted to each part of the “Caliphate” series, and Baquet told NPR that he will be working with Callimachi to determine a new assignment. 

"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," Baquet said.