New York Times’ Prize-Winning Audio Series Based On Fabulist Claiming To Be Member Of ISIS

Another embarrassment for The New York Times that appears to bring no professional consequences whatsoever.

In 2018, the Times published a 12-part podcast series titled “Caliphate,” which relied on the stories of a man claiming to be a former member of ISIS. The series won the Times its first Peabody audio award.

Except, the man claiming to have been a member of ISIS was really a fabulist, but the Times just recently acknowledged the “institutional failing” that allowed the hoax to continue, Fox News’ David Rutz reported.

The fabulist, Shehroze Chaudry, is a man of Pakistani origin living in Canada who claimed to be Abu Huzayfah, former member of ISIS who had even “taken part in killings in Syria,” the Times wrote in a lengthy correction and acknowledgement on Friday.

“During the course of reporting for the series, The Times discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies in Huzayfah’s story. The Times took a number of steps, including seeking confirmation of details from intelligence officials in the United States, to find independent evidence of Huzayfah’s story. The decision was made to proceed with the project but to include an episode, Chapter 6, devoted to exploring major discrepancies and highlighting the fact-checking process that sought to verify key elements of the narrative,” the Times acknowledged.

Two-and-a-half years after the podcast aired, Canadian police arrested Chaudry for making false claims about terrorist activity.

As Rutz reported, even though the Times admitted that Chaudry’s story was false, and has added a note to the podcast’s page, it has not removed the episodes devoted to his claims.

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said in an interview with other Times reporters that it was an “institutional failing” that caused the project to go forward without adequate scrutiny from him or other top editors.

On Friday, Baquet told NPR that the possibility of interviewing a former ISIS member was more important to them than the truth.

“We 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,” Baquet said. “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.”

In the tradition of major media errors, the reporter responsible for the podcast, Rukmini Callimachi, has merely been reassigned from her previous coverage of terrorism. So far, it appears no editors or fact checkers at the paper have been fired or faced any consequences for the monumental mistake.

Below is the Times’ full editor’s note:

In 2018, The Times released a 12-part narrative podcast series called “Caliphate” on the Islamic State terrorist group and its operations. While parts of the series involved a broad examination of the group’s tactics and influence, multiple episodes were driven primarily by the confessional tale of a Canadian man of Pakistani origin who called himself Abu Huzayfah and claimed to have been a member of the Islamic State who had taken part in killings in Syria.

During the course of reporting for the series, The Times discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies in Huzayfah’s story. The Times took a number of steps, including seeking confirmation of details from intelligence officials in the United States, to find independent evidence of Huzayfah’s story. The decision was made to proceed with the project but to include an episode, Chapter 6, devoted to exploring major discrepancies and highlighting the fact-checking process that sought to verify key elements of the narrative.

In September — two and a half years after the podcast was released — the Canadian police arrested Huzayfah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, and charged him with perpetrating a terrorist hoax. Canadian officials say they believe that Mr. Chaudhry’s account of supposed terrorist activity is completely fabricated. The hoax charge led The Times to investigate what Canadian officials had discovered, and to re-examine Mr. Chaudhry’s account and the earlier efforts to determine its validity. This new examination found a history of misrepresentations by Mr. Chaudhry and no corroboration that he committed the atrocities he described in the “Caliphate” podcast.

As a result, The Times has concluded that the episodes of “Caliphate” that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy.

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. For example, reporters and editors could have vetted more thoroughly materials Mr. Chaudhry provided for evidence that he had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State, and pushed harder and earlier to determine what the authorities knew about him. 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.

In the absence of firmer evidence, “Caliphate” should have been substantially revised to exclude the material related to Mr. Chaudhry. The podcast as a whole should not have been produced with Mr. Chaudhry as a central narrative character.

A fuller description of what The Times has learned about Mr. Chaudhry was published on Dec. 18, 2020.

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