B.en Smith of the New York Times is not known to pull his punches. Former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, who exposed the dossier on suspicions that the Kremlin compromised Donald Trump, is on a new pace – the US media.
Smith’s most recent column was a bombshell, targeting the practices of his own employer as well as one of its brightest stars, Rukmini Callimachi, an award-winning correspondent who covered the rise and fall of the Islamic state.
According to Smith, the Times monitored a number of misjudgments in dealing with the reporter that led the paper to publish a seemingly made-up invention.
At the center of the controversy is Caliphate, a high profile podcast released in 2018. Hosted and reported by Callimachi, it is said to tell the inside story of Isis, much of it from a single source who claimed to have traveled to Syria, joined Isis and personally carrying out executions.
Andy Mills and Rukmini Callimachi won a Peabody Award for the podcast in 2019. Photo: John Lamparski / Wireimage
But last month this source was arrested by the Canadian police for “fraudulent terrorism” in his glaring representation of his involvement in Isis violence in Syria. The arrest has reverberated through the newspaper, raising serious questions about other aspects of Callimachi’s coverage and the editors who administered it.
“While some of the coverage has portrayed her as some sort of villain actress in the Times,” Smith wrote in his most devastating verdict, “my coverage suggests that she delivered what the top executives of the news organization requested.” with their support. “
All of this has raised wider questions for some experts, not the least of which is the way the media reports on violent extremism.
By the time Callimachi hit the New York Times in 2014, she quickly became a rising star in a newspaper that, in Smith’s salty description, was trying to “transition from clumsy filing paper to a juicy collection of great stories.”
Callimachi was described by Wired magazine in 2016 as “probably the best reporter on the world’s most important beat” and was a self-confident journalist whose constant Twitter comment ensured a convincing presence on all media platforms.
The Caliphate podcast, however, would go a step further and make her a key figure in delivering her own coverage as she tried to tell the story of Isis from the perspective of her alleged members.
As Smith put it in his column last week, “She is in many ways the new model for a New York Times reporter. She combines the old school bravery of the skydiver, a great foot reporter of the past, with a more modern flair for surfing the narrative waves of Twitter and discovering the kind of stories that will explode on the internet. “
And unlike other colleagues who have covered the Middle East for years, Callimachi took Isis’ quixotic ambitions of statehood seriously and built a series of accounts of the group’s grandiose self-expression. Even her critics admit she wasn’t a slut either, collecting thousands of documents and tracing sources on Isis and others.
Where they say the problems got in was the claim of a colleague who Smith cited in his column that Callimachi “pre-recorded her story” and was “looking for someone to tell her what she already believed” .
And the listeners of Caliphate, the jewel in the crown of Callimachis’ coverage, were told a story of terrible depravity.
At the center was a returned Canadian Isis fighter – known by his nom de Guerre of Abu Huzayfah – whose blood-splattered description of his involvement and the murders in which he was involved raised alarmed questions in the Canadian parliament.
As suggested by Erik Wemple, Washington Post media columnist, Caliphate, by its own logic, followed a “crazy” narrative, rehearsing Abu Huzayfah’s story (actually a man named Shehroze Chaudhry, who may never have set foot in Syria) over six long episodes, before being asked if it’s not real.
“In two horrific passages he describes the execution of two men, one of whom has a knife in his heart. Blood is everywhere, ”wrote Wemple. “Less ubiquitous are warnings from Callimachi that this guy may not be telling the truth.”
The editors and executives of the New York Times have been criticized for allowing the controversy. Photo: ako / Alamy
As Smith revealed in his column, not everyone in the Times was pleased with the strong reliance on a single shaky source, but it appears that by this point the paper had spent so much on the series that turning back was difficult, and suddenly a decision was made in sharp relief by the arrest of the chief source.
And there seem to have been other warning signs that have been ignored, not least that the same person appears to have given interviews to the Canadian media without mentioning his gruesome murders.
Insiders also insist that the questions raised repeatedly about Callimachi’s reporting were in good faith, even if they felt offended.
“Those who raised issues wanted to protect the journalism of their colleagues and the New York Times, as well as Rukmini himself, from such a crisis,” said one.
Questions about the Caliphate had more resonance than whether the Times was simply guilty of gullible reporting.
A Los Angeles Times headline about a play by television critic Lorraine Ali said: “The Caliphate let listeners hear what they wanted to hear about Muslims. And fear sells. “
Charles Lister, an academic who specializes in extremist groups in Syria, sees value in some reports by Callimachi to expose Isis, but criticizes mistakes the Times let through, including other reports outside of the podcast on which he is obviously based on forged documents.
Lister blames some of the problems for a “dizzying excitement” that overtook the media facing Isis’ violence and which resulted in a clickbait race in the media to find Isis voices.
“In many ways [Callimachi] We have succeeded in simplifying a complicated conflict and making individual organizations such as Isis more understandable for general readers, ”he told the observer. “And there is no doubt that it has value.”
The Caliphate let the audience hear what they wanted to hear about Muslims. And fear sells Lorraine Ali, LA Times
He adds, however, that due to a lack of expertise in this area, she also disappeared into a “rabbit hole” in which it was reported that she was temporarily unrelated to reality. “As we saw on the Caliphate podcast, the impact of [the problems] was very profound. Canadians said the podcast affected their immigration policies. So the effects of a mistake were significant. “
Alex Thurston, another American academic expert writing on the Sahel blog, sees another lesson describing the “fetishization” of jihadist source material that offers “the promise of access to an illegal and forbidden world.”
“In my opinion [Callimachi’s] The trajectory points to fundamental problems in “terrorism reporting” and what I often refer to as “terrorology”. [by which] I mean deliberately alarming and reductive analysis of jihadist movements and ‘terrorist groups’. “
The Times investigation has raised new questions about Callimachi’s reporting, including from the family of James Foley, the journalist who was murdered by Isis and accused of bullying.
On Thursday, the Times editor-in-chief Dean Baquet spoke at a paper-wide meeting about concerns about recent controversies, including the Caliphate, and answered anonymously asked questions.
Baquet’s response clung to his support for Callimachi, whom he described as a “great journalist” and “intrepid reporter”, although he admitted that when mistakes were made, questions needed to be answered, including about the management of star reporters.
It didn’t calm everyone who listened. “It would be ridiculously unfair to Rukmini and the rest of the newsroom if this investigation focused only on Rukmini,” said one of her colleagues.
“It would be a missed opportunity if it weren’t for examining how the newspaper’s editors and executives made their decisions about this coverage and how they manage the newsroom, how they deal with internal disagreements and how we create stories and whether there are different rules for different journalists. If the leaders of the newspaper do not look at themselves, if they only look at Rukmini’s actions and not their own, this will just happen again. “