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Host of 'The Daily' Clouds 'N.Y. Times' Effort To Restore Trust After 'Caliphate'

Dec 24, 2020
Originally published on December 24, 2020 2:29 pm

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 spoke with 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. It 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.

This fall, Canadian authorities filed federal charges saying Chaudhry had lied about being an ISIS executioner. The ensuing front-page treatment from Mazzetti and his colleagues found no evidence Chaudhry killed anyone, joined ISIS or even ever traveled to Syria.

In other words, the narrative propelling Caliphate collapsed.

The Times published a written Editor's Note atop each episode of the series and an additional story on internal debates stirred by the reporting by 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."

Professional And Personal Ties With 'Caliphate' Crew

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 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.

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 Rhoades-Ha says the episode was promoted on The Times' homepage, mobile page and through other digital channels to drive traffic to it.)

Barbaro Emerges As Major Star For New York Times

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 4 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 to 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 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.

"I happen to believe that in this instance that it is a sign of The New York Times' integrity, that they took this step," said Wemple, who has written extensively about Caliphate. "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 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 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; Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham co-host a culture podcast for The Times produced apart from The Daily.

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 Callimachi's work.

Echoes Of Baquet's Lessons From Caliphate

Barbaro's ability to hold multiple roles has echoes of what went awry in Caliphate.

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.

Baquet confirmed to NPR that he had reassigned Callimachi from the terrorism beat, calling her a talented reporter but saying it would be too much to ask readers to trust her stories on that subject. He would not specify any other repercussions or reassignments.

On Monday, The Daily offered a special episode to listeners about the radio host Delilah.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Late last week The New York Times gave back a Peabody Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist citation. This was after the paper retracted the core of its hit podcast series "Caliphate." But in trying to restore faith in its journalism, the Times may be demonstrating the persistence of some problems at the heart of this scandal. A Times star audio host is trying to help correct course and also do damage control on the controversy. Here's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Last Friday The New York Times posted an unusual 30-minute podcast about journalism - its own. Michael Barbaro, host of the Times' podcast "The Daily," was tackling an uncomfortable topic with executive editor Dean Baquet on behalf of the paper's listeners and readers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BARBARO: And I just want to...

DEAN BAQUET: Yeah.

BARBARO: ...Understand what you think happened. And were we duped? Were we tricked? Why that word?

BAQUET: In fact, duped might not be the best word because dupe implied that we didn't do anything wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: They were talking about "Caliphate," a podcast series about ISIS and terrorism that kicked off in spring of 2018. "Caliphate" focused greatly on a young Canadian Pakistani who claimed to have been an executioner for ISIS in Syria. He was the main character of the series despite red flags he was lying. When I spoke to Baquet last week, he said "Caliphate" host Rukmini Callimachi's faith in her story and her subject overrode warnings from colleagues.

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BAQUET: She's a powerful reporter who we imbued with a great deal of power and authority. 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet told NPR that newsroom leaders did not subject the series to sufficient scrutiny because they were not used to editing audio with the same rigor they apply to print reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BAQUET: Because this was a different form, people like me and some of my top deputies didn't feel as comfortable. And that's why it fell through the cracks.

FOLKENFLIK: This fall, after Canadian authorities filed federal charges saying the man who had claimed to be an ISIS executioner had lied about it, a different team of Times journalists did an investigation. In a front-page story, they reported they found no evidence the man killed anyone, joined ISIS or even ever traveled to Syria. In other words, the narrative propelling "Caliphate" collapsed. On his corrective podcast, however, Barbaro did not disclose several key facts about his own connection to the discredited "Caliphate" series.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CALIPHATE")

BARBARO: From The New York Times and the team that brought you "The Daily," this is "Caliphate."

FOLKENFLIK: That's what Barbaro said back in 2018, when "The Daily" ran the second episode of the new series as part of its own show. "The Daily" producer Andy Mills helped drive the sound and feel of the series. From the outset, he became Callimachi's on-air sidekick.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CALIPHATE")

ANDY MILLS: Test one, two.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: How's this? It's OK?

MILLS: Yeah.

CALLIMACHI: OK.

FOLKENFLIK: Others joined "Caliphate" from "The Daily" as well, among them "Caliphate's" executive producer Lisa Tobin. She 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.

Barbaro is one of the Times's most recognizable stars. The paper says more than 4 million listeners download "The Daily" each day. The podcast has won the paper new awards, subscribers and revenues, though this interview did not run in "The Daily's" feed. Off mic, Barbaro sought to do damage control for "Caliphate," privately urging at least four prominent journalists on Friday to temper how they framed what happened. I know because I was one of them, as was an NPR colleague who used to cover conflict in the Middle East and the Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, whom Barbaro warned was wrong to call the Times' walk-back a retraction. Here's Erik Wemple.

ERIK WEMPLE: I happen to believe that, in this instance, that it is a sign of The New York Times' integrity that they took this step and that they should embrace that they retracted it instead of sort of, like, tiptoeing around.

FOLKENFLIK: Barbaro declined to comment for this story. It struck Wemple as a problem that the Times assigned Barbaro to interview Baquet about a scandal that he had such close ties to.

WEMPLE: I think it's disqualifying and is certainly, certainly blinding, you know? I don't think Michael should have been involved in - you know, in this particular aspect of it. But he is the voice of The New York Times.

FOLKENFLIK: Plenty of others at the Times could have pinch-hit - colleagues with rich experience in podcasting or broadcasting. In a statement, New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades-Ha says the paper is committed to applying the same journalistic rigor across all its platforms. The interview Michael Barbaro conducted with Dean Baquet, she wrote, served as an audio corrective that complemented its written findings. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.