NPR questions credibility of NY Times' leading podcast host over his handling of a retracted story

They say the cover-up is often worse than the crime and that seems to be the case at the NY Times. It all began with a podcast created by the NY Times called Caliphate which told the dramatic story of a Canadian man who was lured from his home to Syria by ISIS and eventually became an executioner for the group. The podcast was tremendously successful. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won a Peabody award in 2018. Here’s the original blurb on the Peabody awards site:

Why did people join ISIS? Callimachi and audio producer Andy Mills present their answers in absorbing style, wedding storytelling, reports from Iraq, and interviews with a wide range of subjects – from Abu Huzayfah to a Yazidi girl tortured by ISIS troops – to produce a wonderful example of what longform audio reporting can and should sound like. They uncover, as Hannah Arendt dubbed it, “the banality of evil,” the everydayness, motivations, and even the humanity of those who dedicated their lives to the Islamic State’s violent ends, with a depiction that is as revealing as it is uncompromising. Caliphate is a tale of zealotry in theology and politics, and of the enduring trauma that follows in its wake, told from as close as Callimachi could get inside of that zealotry. For guiding us through the complex maze of customs and recruitment of a terror network, Caliphate earns a Peabody Award.

Sounds good, right? There was just one little problem. The man at the center of this tale made it all up. He was investigated by Canadian authorities who accused him of perpetrating a terrorism hoax. Belatedly, the Times re-investigated its own story.

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.

In December of last year, the Times admitted it couldn’t back up any of Chaudhry’s claims. There was no proof he had ever traveled to Syria or joined ISIS, much less become an executioner for the group. The Times returned the Peabody Award and added a long editors note to the podcast admitting it couldn’t back up the core of the tale. You might think that would be the end of it but it wasn’t. In fact that’s where things got interesting.

The biggest podcast star at the NY Times is Michael Barbaro. He hosts a podcast called The Daily which has about 2 million listeners per week. He has become the voice of the NY Times. Last month, Barbaro interviewed NY Times executive editor Dean Baquet about the collapse of Caliphate and walked listeners through how the paper got the story wrong. But as NPR pointed out on Christmas Eve, Barbaro left out a lot about his own personal and professional connections to Caliphate.

Back in 2018, The Daily ran the first episodes of Caliphate as part of its own podcast. Barbaro introduced the new series: “From The New York Times and the team that brought you The Daily, this is Caliphate.”

Andy Mills, a key producer behind the launch of The Daily, helped drive the sound and feel of Caliphate. From the outset, Mills became Callimachi’s sidekick on the air, testing her microphones, prodding translators, questioning sources. Others joined Caliphate from The Daily as well.

Among them was Caliphate’s executive producer, Lisa Tobin. She had held the same role at The Daily and is now the executive producer of audio at The Times.

Off the air, Barbaro and Tobin are engaged to be married…

Yet those listening to Barbaro press Baquet would not have known that the host is engaged to the executive producer of the very series whose flaws he was dissecting.

And while Barbaro was putting himself forward as the person helping the NY Times correct the record, he was simultaneously pressuring outside reporters to go easy on the paper.

Privately, Barbaro repeatedly pressed at least four journalists Friday to temper their critiques of The Times and how they framed what happened. I know, because I was one of them.

So was NPR host and former Middle East correspondent Lulu Garcia-Navarro, whom he admonished to demonstrate restraint and warned was hurting the feelings of people at the newspaper.

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple also received multiple direct messages from Barbaro, especially about his use of the word “retract” on Twitter to describe what happened.

Babaro’s battle with the Post’s Erik Wemple over whether or not Caliphate had been retracted is illustrative. Wemple argued that retraction was an accurate word in this case but Barbaro said that wasn’t the case because not every single episode of the series was built around Chaudhry’s fabulism.

Here’s Barbaro’s explanation of why the Times didn’t retract the podcast.

Okay, so how many episodes of Caliphate were untouched by the fabulism of its main subject? NPR did the math. There were a total of 10 episodes plus a prologue. One of the episodes was a two-parter so that makes a total of 12 installments. Of those 12 installments, eight (including the prologue) were mostly about Chaudhry and two more mentioned him. Basically that leaves just the two-part 9th episode as untouched by this scandal. Two out of ten installments are fine. That’s a pretty thin reed on which to claim the Times hasn’t retracted the story.

Today NPR reports a group of 20 public radio stations have sent a letter to the NY Times critical of Barbaro’s handling of all of this:

“We, along with our audiences, place tremendous value on the fact that our journalism is free from influence of any kind, whether motivated by financial, political, or personal enrichment reasons,” the letter sent by the Public Radio Program Directors Association late Monday night read. “This is our ethical compass. We feel Barbaro’s actions are in direct conflict with our ethical guidelines and they call his general credibility into question.”…

“We would just like the New York Times to admit this was a failure on their part and to work on remedying the situation,” Abby Goldstein, president and executive director of the association, told NPR.

If 85% of the podcast is based on a lie, it should be retracted. And the person working to correct the record should have to admit his own role in promoting the show and his personal connections to the people who worked on it. He also shouldn’t be working the refs behind the scenes to avoid responsibility. This is an extremely sketchy way to operate and if it were any paper besides the NY Times this would be considered a scandal and Michael Barbaro would pay a price for how he approached this. But it’s the NY Times and Barbaro is a big star hosting their biggest podcast so the whole thing will be swept under the rug and politely ignored.