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NYT to reassign reporter hoaxed by Isis ‘con-artist’ in flagship Caliphate podcast

'If you look at something like our coverage of Donald Trump's finances, I read so many versions of those stories that frankly, I could almost do Donald Trump's taxes. We did not do that in this case’

Justin Vallejo
New York
Friday 18 December 2020 22:34
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NYT editor says the 'ISIS executioner' featured in flagship podcast was actually a 'con artist'
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A New York Times reporter will be reassigned from its terrorism beat after executive editor Dean Baquet said they were duped by a “con artist” posing as an Isis executioner.

Following an internal investigation, the newspaper retracted key parts of the 2018 award-winning podcast "Caliphate" that ignored red flags when reporting on the story's central figure, Shehroze Chaudhry.

Questions about the podcast, hosted by Rukmini Callimachi, surfaced after Mr Chaudhry was arrested by Canadian authorities in September on charges his role as an Isis executioner in Syria was entirely a hoax.

"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," Mr Baquet told NPR.

He said the Times would work with Ms Callimachi to determine a fresh assignment, but declined to say whether any other reporters, producers, fact-checkers or editors would receive reprimands following the review.

The Times did not respond to The Independent's request for comment, with a spokesperson pointing to Mr Baquet's comments to NPR.

Ms Callimachi, who previously questioned the competence of Canadian intelligence agencies that levelled the hoax charges, unequivocally apologised on Friday, saying she should have caught Mr Chaudhry's lies and made clearer what they did and didn't know to be true.

"Reflecting on what I missed in reporting our podcast is humbling. Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting," she said in a statement.

The 12-part podcast won a prestigious Peabody Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for its unparalleled look inside the Islamic State terror group. In one episode, Mr Chaudhry spoke of killing a man in an orange jumpsuit.

“The blood was just — it was warm, and it sprayed everywhere... I had to stab him multiple times. And then we put him up on a cross. And I had to leave the dagger in his heart,” he said.

More than two and a half years after first airing, an Editors' Note published on Friday said the podcast did not meet their standards for accuracy.  At fault was the newsroom's failure to assign an editor with terrorism expertise and the lack of scepticism and rigour in reporting on Mr Chaudhry's claims.

"It is also clear that elements of the original fact-checking process were not sufficiently rigorous: 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 paper said.

Mr Baquet told NPR that the Times “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,” he said.

They began investigating the claims of Mr Chaudhry, who went by the alias Abu Huzayfah, after he was arrested in September.

The Times' media reporter Ben Smith wrote about the questions over the podcast's accuracy in October, while three reporters contributed to Friday’s reporting that outlined the internal review and its the findings.  

There were two separate investigations, one led by the paper's associate managing editor for investigations, Dean E Murphy, that reviewed how the podcast was reported, edited and fact-checked. The other was led by investigative correspondent Mark Mazzetti, which looked into Mr Chaudhry specifically.

The team led by Mr Mazetti also published its findings on how his story was fabricated, taking a “fresh look at social media posts, photographs, travel records, academic transcripts and other potential evidence that could shed light on his contention that he had joined, and killed for, Isis in Syria”.

“The review found no independent corroboration of Mr Chaudhry’s participation in the atrocities he claims to have committed in the ‘Caliphate’ podcast,” they wrote.

Mr Baquet, who said the extent of their public reporting on the mistake was an example of the Times’ efforts for transparency, was also interviewed by host of The Daily, Michael Barbaro, for a correction to run before every episode of "Caliphate", which will remain online.

He said while Ms Callimachi was the well-known reporter involved in the podcast, the errors were an "institutional failing" that led the newspaper being duped.

"In fact dupe might not be the best word because dupe implied that we didn’t do anything wrong. I think this guy, we now believe, was a con artist, who made up most if not all of what he told us," Mr Baquet said.

"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. If you look at something like our coverage of Donald Trump's finances, I read so many versions of those stories that frankly, I could almost do Donald Trump's taxes. We did not do that in this case."

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