Star Host’s Ties Cloud ‘N.Y. Times’ Effort To Restore Trust After Podcast Scandal

Late last week, The New York Times issued one of its biggest mea culpas in years. The nation’s leading newspaper returned a Peabody award and a citation as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize after retracting the core of its hit podcast series Caliphate.

In seeking to restore faith in its journalism, however, The Times may have demonstrated the persistence of some of the problems at the heart of this scandal. The paper’s top editor participated in a podcast to help correct the record and to say, as he put it, “we got it wrong.”

Yet The Times’ 30-minute corrective podcast was hosted by its leading audio star, who was, away from the microphone, simultaneously doing damage control on a controversy that proved close to home.

To help restore trust, Michael Barbaro, host of the Times news podcast The Daily, interviewed Executive Editor Dean Baquet. Barbaro also elicited the findings of investigative correspondent Mark Mazzetti, who had led a team of New York Times journalists that went back and re-reported the story the podcast had told.

“Our goal in producing this corrective audio episode was to make sure we provided our podcast listeners with the same level of transparency and accountability we gave print and online readers,” said New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha. “It was a new approach for us, but we are committed to applying the same rigorous journalistic standards across all of our platforms.” (Baquet declined to comment for this story.)

Caliphate made its debut in spring of 2018. It explored ISIS and the lure and threat of terrorism, driven by host Rukmini Callimachi, a much-celebrated Times reporter on terror. The narrative style of the podcast was a counterpoint and complement to the largely interview-driven approach of The Daily.

Caliphate focused greatly on a young-Canadian-Pakistani, Shehroze Chaudhry, who claimed to have been an executioner for ISIS in Syria. The Caliphate team made him the main character in the series, despite clear signs he was lying: he had told Canadian reporters that he had not participated in any killings and the Caliphate team also determined the timeline provided for his travel to Syria couldn’t be true.

Last week, Baquet told NPR that Callimachi’s faith in her story and her subject overrode warnings from colleagues.

“She’s a powerful reporter who we imbued with a great deal of power and authority,” Baquet said in a wide-ranging interview about the debacle. “She was regarded at that moment as, you know, as big a deal ISIS reporter as there was in the world. And there’s no question that that was one of the driving forces of the story.”

Baquet told NPR that newsroom leaders did not subject the series to sufficient scrutiny because they were not accustomed to editing audio with the same rigor they apply to print reporting. “Because this was a different form, people like me and some of my top deputies didn’t feel as comfortable, and that’s why that fell through the cracks,” Baquet said.

An internal review of Caliphate‘s reporting process was led by senior investigative editor Dean Murphy. He found that Callimachi and her editors repeatedly failed to push hard enough to verify Chaudhry’s claims. Baquet told NPR the paper should have assigned a senior editor with authoritative knowledge of terrorism and the region to help oversee the project.

This fall, after Canadian authorities filed federal charges saying Chaudhry had lied about being an ISIS executioner, Baquet commissioned the re-investigation of Chaudhry’s activities, led by Mazzetti. The ensuing front-page treatment found no evidence Chaudhry killed anyone, joined ISIS or even ever traveled to Syria.

In other words, the narrative propelling Caliphate collapsed.

The paper sought to build back trust with readers and listeners. Along with the Mazzetti piece, it published a written Editor’s Note atop each episode of the series and an additional story on internal debates stirred by the podcast’s reporting, especially Callimachi and her team. And Barbaro narrated a version of the Editor’s Note that now plays before the opening lines of each episode. He says, “The Times has concluded that the episodes of Caliphate that presented Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.”

On his corrective podcast in which he questioned Baquet about that collapse, however, Barbaro did not disclose several key facts about his own connection to those who created the discredited Caliphate series. (Barbaro declined to comment for this story.)

Back in 2018, The Daily ran the second episode 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.

Their relationship is no secret; it has been documented in other outlets from The New York Post‘s Page Six gossip column, where it was first disclosed, to the pages of The Hollywood Reporter.

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.

Indeed, listeners of the Daily would not necessarily have known about the corrective episode at all, as it flowed only to listeners of Caliphate, not the feed of the much larger audience for The Daily. (Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha says the episode was promoted on the Times’ homepage, mobile page and through other digital channels to drive traffic to it.)

In switching four years ago from the politics beat to become The Times‘ first daily audio host, Barbaro has evolved into one of the newspaper’s most recognizable stars. The Times says more than four million listeners download his podcast each day. It has won the paper new awards, subscribers and revenues.

Barbaro is known for being fiercely proud of his team. Off microphone last weekend, Barbaro weighed in on Twitter to do damage control for Caliphate – or, as he put it, to correct the record. He argued that NPR was wrong to say that the newspaper retracted the series. (NPR’s initial headline stated ” ‘N.Y. Times’ Retracts Hit Podcast Series ‘Caliphate’ On ISIS Executioner”; it later tweaked the headline to read ” ‘N.Y. Times’ Retracts Core Of Hit Podcast Series ‘Caliphate.”)

Baquet told NPR on Friday that it did constitute a retraction “for the parts that were about Chaudhry and his history and his background. Yeah, I think it is. Sure does.”

Caliphate was divided into a prologue and 10 chapters (though the ninth was split into two parts). The prologue and seven chapters were largely devoted to what the Times now believes is Chaudhry’s fictions about being a killer for ISIS. Two chapters mentioned Chaudhry. Only one, the ninth chapter about a Yazidi girl held in captivity for three years by ISIS, failed not do so.

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 Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, whom he admonished to demonstrate restraint and warned was hurting the feelings of people at the newspaper.

Washington Post media critic Eric Wemple also received multiple Barbaro direct messages, especially about his embrace of the world “retract” on Twitter to describe what happened.

“I happen to believe that in this instance that it is a sign of The New York Times’ integrity, that they took this step,” Wemple said. “They should embrace that they retracted it instead of … tiptoeing around this idea.”

Beyond that, Wemple said, The Times should not have assigned Barbaro to interview Baquet about a scandal that he had such close ties to.

“I think it’s disqualifying and it’s certainly certainly blinding,” Wemple said in an interview. “I don’t think Michael should have been involved in, you know, in this particular aspect of it. But he is the he is the voice of The New York Times.”

Even so, plenty of colleagues at The Times who have rich experiences in podcasting or broadcasting could have pinch hit: tech columnist Kara Swisher has a podcast through the opinion section; business columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin co-hosts a morning show for CNBC; media columnist Ben Smith, who has written about Caliphate previously, used to host a podcast for BuzzFeed.

Wemple and Garcia-Navarro are among those on social media (and in Wemple’s case, in print) who have challenged The Times‘ judgment, particularly in dismissing critics of Rukmini’s work.

Barbaro’s advocacy, in a sense, fits into that pattern, Wemple says.

On Monday, The Daily offered a special episode to listeners.

Barbaro yielded the host’s chair to two colleagues. One of them was Andy Mills, the former Caliphate producer.

Disclosure: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik’s wife is co-founder of an independent podcast production company that created two limited-run podcast series for The New York Times. She played no role in, and had no personal knowledge of, the Caliphate series.

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