New York Times’ ‘Caliphate’ debacle should teach Americans ‘not to trust’ once-proud paper, critics say

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The New York Times’ latest gaffe is so egregious that some critics feel the paper’s credibility has been permanently torched.

The Times published an extensive correction on Friday after acknowledging its 2018 podcast series “Caliphate” heavily relied on a serial fabulist who claimed to have been a member of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization. The debacle was so embarrassing for the once-proud newspaper that Executive Editor Dean Baquet called it an “institutional failing” and the Times even returned a coveted Peabody Award that the project earned.

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The “Caliphate” blunder is the latest in a series of embarrassing moments and public relations nightmares for the Times in recent memory, such as the controversial 1619 project and the chaos that unfolded when the paper printed an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton headlined “Send in the Troops” at the height of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody.

As a result of the Cotton op-ed, liberal staffers publicly bashed the paper and the backlash eventually resulted in then-editorial page editor James Bennet’s abrupt exit after internal backlash. Shortly afterward, then-star columnist and editor Bari Weiss quit with a scathing resignation letter saying she was bullied by colleagues in an “illiberal environment” weeks after declaring there was a “civil war” inside the paper.

All this occurred as the paper was regularly accused of unfairly treating President Trump while downplaying or simply dismissing stories that could hurt prominent Democrats. 

“The Times has lit its credibility on fire over the last few years. From baseless anti-Trump conspiracy theories to the laughably error-riddled 1619 and now to this,” conservative strategist Chris Barron told Fox News. “The Times might ask themselves why this keeps happening over and over again?”

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Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson doesn’t think returning the Peabody is an adequate punishment for the embattled Times.

”If the New York Times took the legitimacy of its reporting seriously, it would return not only the Peabody Award for the ‘Caliphate’ podcast, but also insist its employees return the Pulitzer prizes received for Trump-Russia coverage and the 1619 Project, both of which also were deeply flawed,” Jacobson said. “It’s easy to return the Peabody because it doesn’t go to the core of what the NY Times does, unlike awards for anti-Trumpism and racial activism.”

The latest fiasco for the Times surrounding “Caliphate” started when the paper admitted it failed to properly vet Shehroze Chaudry’s lurid stories before airing them on the podcast, which won the now-returned Peabody audio award. It also published the interviews with him even after its own investigations found discrepancies in his stories.

The 12-part series was “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,” the Times wrote on Friday. 

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“During the course of reporting for the series, The Times discovered significant falsehoods and other discrepancies in Huzayfah’s story … 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.”

Chaudhry, 26, claimed to reporter Rukmini Callimachi he traveled to Syria and committed numerous atrocities on behalf of ISIS as well as engaged in secret discussions of terrorist attacks against the West on the scale of 9/11.

However, he was arrested by Canadian authorities in September for perpetrating a terror hoax after an investigation revealed his tales were fictional. Intelligence officials reached the conclusion after an extensive probe into his travel, social media postings and statements to police, and they have cast doubt on whether he has ever even entered Syria, the Times reported.

In an interview with his own paper, Baquet said the “ambitious” project was not properly scrutinized by him nor his top deputies.

“This failing isn’t about any one reporter. I think this was an institutional failing,” he said.

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Baquet told NPR the newspaper “fell in love” with the idea of interviewing a former ISIS fighter, even with so many red flags.

“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.”

An internal investigation has led to the lead reporter on the story, Callimachi, getting reassigned to a new beat. Callimachi also had two editor’s notes placed on past stories from 2014 and 2019 that contained reporting errors.

“She’s going to take on a new beat, and she and I are discussing possibilities,” Baquet said. “I think it’s hard to continue covering terrorism after what happened with this story. But I think she’s a fine reporter.” 

The magnitude of the errors admitted by the Times forced even far-left organizations — such as NPR and CNN — to cover the debacle.

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Media Research Center vice president Dan Gainor feels the “Caliphate” episode is essentially history repeating itself for the Gray Lady.

“The New York Times never changes. The paper won a Pulitzer in 1932 for lying about the Soviet genocide that killed millions of Ukrainians. Now it wins a Peabody Award for lying about ISIS. It should teach the rest of us not to trust Times reporting,” Gainor told Fox News.

“And not to trust the paper to fix the problem. The reporter in this case was merely reassigned, not fired. To get fired at The Times, you have to run an op-ed by a Republican U.S. senator,” Gainor said, referring to Bennet’s abrupt exit following the Cotton op-ed.

“It’s also pathetic that Baquet just won the Walter Cronkite Award for excellence in journalism,” Gainor added.

In its “Caliphate” correction, the Times said it should have had “regular participation” of an editor experienced on the subject and more carefully vetted Chaudhry’s evidence of his claims.

“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,” the correction said.

Chaudhry has denied the hoax charge, which alleges he caused public safety concerns by airing his violent stories and creating alarm in his home country. Those who know him in Canada have described him as an ISIS sympathizer who is lonely and confused.

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Before his arrest, discrepancies in Chaudhry’s story had already emerged that the Times admits it failed to adequately address in the podcast. In a report on Chaudhry’s background Friday, the Times reported he had told the paper before “Caliphate” aired about one of his emirs, or commanders, in Syria. The emir contradicted some of Chaudhry’s key claims in a subsequent interview, such as how he operated in a different city than the one where Chaudhry said he was stationed. He also said Chaudhry likely had a military role, in conflict with Chaudhry’s claim that he was a religious police officer.

Some of these inconsistencies were not included in the “Caliphate” podcast,” the Times reported.

“Later, the emir sent a short voice message of a second ISIS official who claimed to remember Mr. Chaudhry,” the Times added. “The Times never interviewed the person directly, yet included his assertions in ‘Caliphate.’ And, as noted in the podcast, The Times did not independently verify the identities of these supposed officials or vet the accuracy of their accounts.”

The Times had already poked holes in his original story of joining ISIS in February 2014 after flying to Turkey and then sneaking into Syria. His passport showed no Turkey stamp and found he traveled between Canada and Lahore, Pakistan, where he lived with his grandparents and attended college at the time he said he was in Syria. He later changed his story to say he traveled to Syria sometime after September 2014 after then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate.

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Callimachi brought up some of these credibility issues in the podcast, but not all, by the paper’s own admission.

Another discrepancy that emerged before his arrest was that he told Canadian outlet Global News he had never killed anyone, yet he described participating in violent executions on “Caliphate.”

Meanwhile, Callimachi released a statement Friday expressing regret for the breakdowns.

“Reflecting on what I missed in reporting our podcast is humbling,” she wrote. “Thinking of the colleagues and the newsroom I let down is gutting. 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 I should have.”

President Trump even called on the Times to apologize to him for supposed faulty reporting upon learning of the correction, writing “they do this to me every day.” 

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Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple declared Sunday that, “The ‘Caliphate’ retraction won’t end the New York Times’s woes,” in a story that outlines longstanding issues with Callimachi.

“As early as late 2014, less than a year after Callimachi jumped from the Associated Press to the New York Times, colleagues were expressing concerns about her methods and conclusions,” Wemple wrote. “A well-placed source at the Times in 2018 described staffers’ complaints about Callimachi.”

The ordeal has been a trending topic on Twitter since the Times issued its embarrassing correction:

Fox News’ David Rutz contributed to this report.



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