Give the Gray Lady credit for stepping up and acknowledging its failure. Their award-winning enterprise effort fell apart on them, and the New York Times admirably accepted responsibility for not scrutinizing it more closely:
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said the blame fell on the newsroom’s leaders, including himself.
“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,” he said in a podcast interview that was scheduled to be posted by The Times on Friday.
“We did not do that in this case,” he continued. “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.”
Yeah, that 1619 Project turned out to be a real shoddy exercise, didn’t it? The NYT never bothered to check its assumptions, work with recognized experts in the field, and tried to cover its tracks once it got called out. At least now they’re —
Wait … what? This isn’t about the 1619 Project? Actually, Dean Baquet’s mea culpa applies to another enterprise effort in narrative journalism that fell apart on the Paper of Record. The NYT has withdrawn its Peabody Award-winning podcast series Caliphate after its source turned out to be a con man:
Shehroze Chaudhry, the central figure in the 2018 podcast “Caliphate,” by The New York Times, was a fabulist who spun jihadist tales about killing for the Islamic State in Syria, Canadian and American intelligence and law enforcement officials contend.
Mr. Chaudhry, they say, was not a terrorist, almost certainly never went to Syria and concocted gruesome stories about being an Islamic State executioner as part of a Walter Mitty-like escape from his more mundane life in a Toronto suburb and in Lahore, Pakistan, where he spent years living with his grandparents.
Mr. Chaudhry’s elaborate accounts, told to The Times and other news outlets, caused a political uproar in Canada. The award-winning “Caliphate” series broadcast his claims of killing for the Islamic State to millions of listeners, fueling outrage that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had allowed a terrorist to live freely in suburban Toronto despite the crimes Mr. Chaudhry had so openly confessed to committing in Syria.
Now, Mr. Chaudhry’s public declarations have put him in legal jeopardy. In September, the Canadian authorities charged Mr. Chaudhry with perpetrating a terrorist hoax, a criminal charge that could bring up to five years in prison if he is convicted.
After Canadian and American authorities raised questions about Chaudhry’s claims and purported exploits, the NYT then decided to conduct a “review” of Caliphate and the reporting of Rukmini Callimachi. If the post-publication and post-award seems like an odd time to perform due diligence at a mainstream-media institution like the Gray Lady, just recall that they still have largely avoided it on the 1619 Project. Normally, media consumers would assume that newspapers would think to check out these claims for themselves, especially since they brag about their “layers of fact checkers and editors,” and accuse skeptics of undermining democracy by challenging their claims.
The NYT had to get pushed into fact-checking their source only after other media outlets started calling out the contradictions:
The Canadian media and a handful of critics in the U.S., notably Erik Wemple of The Washington Post and Hassan Hassan of Newlines magazine, raised significant questions about Callimachi’s judgment and the accuracy of her reporting.
The Times resisted revisiting Chaudhry’s story until his arrest this fall, when Canadian officials charged him with lying about participating in terrorist activities. It then published the findings into Chaudhry’s activities by its distinguished national security reporter, Mark Mazzetti, who cast significant doubt on the Canadian’s claims.
Until then, however, Baquet and the rest of the NYT was more than happy to bask in the glow of Caliphate. They didn’t fact-check Chaudhry to see if he was a fabulist because his story served their purposes whether it was true or a con. Just as in the 1619 Project, their narrative got all the right attention from all the right people, although one bit of self-promotion would prove uncomfortably prophetic:
“‘Caliphate’ represents the modern New York Times,” Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor, said in unveiling the project. “It’s ambitious, rigorous, hard-nosed reporting combined with first-rate digital storytelling. We’re taking our audience to dangerous places they have never been, and we’re doing it with more transparency than we ever have before.”
Caliphate made a huge splash for The Times, winning awards, acclaim, new listeners for its podcasts and new paying subscribers. And it further propelled Callimachi into the journalistic stratosphere. In vivid and visceral detail, Chaudhry, speaking under the pseudonym Abu Huzayfah, told Callimachi and her colleagues of the atrocities he witnessed in Syria and of his involvement in execution-style killings.
Indeed! Caliphate does represent the “modern New York Times,” as does its 1619 Project. The “modern” New York Times has much more interest in narrative than news. And judging from their peers in awards organizations, they’re hardly alone.