The New York Times on Friday retracted the Peabody-winning podcast Caliphate, saying the series did not meet the newspaper’s standards for accuracy. The 12-episode podcast released in 2018 was based extensively on the story of a Toronto man who created a false identify for himself, sharing stories of how he traveled to Syria to take part in killings for Islamic State. Canadian police have since charged Shehroze Chaudhry, who called himself Abu Huzayfah in the podcast, with perpetrating a terrorist hoax.
In an editor’s note, the Times said during the course of reporting for the series its team discovered “significant falsehoods and other discrepancies” with Chaudhry’s narrative that he was an ISIS executioner. The Times said it took several steps, including seeking confirmation of details from intelligence officials in the United States, to find independent evidence of the story. The decision was made to proceed with the project, it explained, noting that it included discussion in the series’ sixth episode about the discrepancies and the efforts the team took to fact-check elements of Chaudhry’s story. After an internal review, the paper now says that did not go far enough.
“From the outset, Caliphate should have had the regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter. In addition, The Times should have pressed harder to verify Mr. Chaudhry’s claims before deciding to place so much emphasis on one individual’s account,” the note to listeners said. “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.”
Without firmer evidence, the Times now says Caliphate should have been “substantially revised” to exclude the material related to Chaudhry. “The podcast as a whole should not have been produced with Mr. Chaudhry as a central narrative character,” it said.
Caliphate host Rukmini Callimachi posted an apology to listeners on Twitter which called the errors “gutting.” Callimachi said she should have demanded more transparency from her source. “Reflecting on what I missed in report our podcasting is humbling,” she said in the statement. “I caught the subject of our podcast lying about key aspects of his account and reported that. I also didn’t catch other lies he told us, and should have. I added caveats to try to make clear what we knew and what we didn’t. It wasn’t enough.”
In an interview with NPR, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet declined to say if any reporters or Times Audio team members would be disciplined. He did say Callimachi would be reassigned from the terrorism beat. "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," he said.
The Times will not remove episodes of Caliphate from podcast platforms. But it will add an audio correction in the form of an editor’s note from Baquet posted to each episode webpage.
In April 2019 the judges from the Peabody awards said Caliphate had an “absorbing style” and was “a wonderful example of what long-form audio reporting can and should sound like” as it awarded the podcast a trophy. The organization has not yet said whether it plans to rescind the honor.