After an internal review, The New York Times now says it built the 2018 podcast Caliphate on a story it cannot vouch for. It says star reporter Rukmini Callimachi will no longer cover terrorism.



The most influential newspaper in this country says it got a big story wrong. The New York Times presented the story of a young Canadian who said he traveled to Syria. He said he became an executioner for ISIS. It was the sort of story that was perfect for a podcast. And the Times made it into one, winning awards. Now the Times acknowledges there is no proof the man did what he said. The paper is retracting its 2018 story and has also reassigned its most prominent terrorism reporter. The story we're about to hear includes some graphic descriptions. NPR's David Folkenflik spoke with New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet about what went wrong.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Dean Baquet says the Times succumbed to a simple and fatal flaw.

DEAN BAQUET: You know, I think that we fell in love with our story. I think 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet says the newspaper's top editors are used to reviewing lengthy written investigative articles. They didn't give their complex podcast project the same degree of scrutiny. He includes himself in that group.

BAQUET: And frankly, 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 to the evidence.

FOLKENFLIK: Reporting on terrorism is notoriously difficult, yet Baquet concedes the Times brushed aside criticisms for more than two years. That is, until September, when Canadian authorities accused the man of lying about what he told The New York Times. Then, the Times finally launched a review.

BAQUET: And the end result, I think, is that we produced a very ambitious story that did not have very ambitious vetting. And I think that we got it wrong, to be blunt.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's scroll back a bit to set the stage for how a triumph turned into a debacle. The New York Times had been casting about for a new blockbuster in audio after its smash hit news podcast "The Daily." Rukmini Callimachi had covered terrorism aggressively for years, a fearless force of nature, chasing stories in far-flung places. Callimachi appeared frequently on NPR and other networks as an analyst. Questions had been raised about her previous work, even from inside her own newsroom. Yet her advocates included top editors and included Baquet, and she seemingly rewarded their faith with "Caliphate." At its core is the vivid account Shehroze Chaudhry gave of joining ISIS and then killing for it. A warning - this is really, really brutal to listen to.


SHEHROZE CHAUDHRY: You know, I'm just trying to build up the courage to do it. After that, I stabbed him.

FOLKENFLIK: The young Canadian told the Times team he was ordered to kill civilians.


CHAUDHRY: The blood was just - it was warm. And it sprayed everywhere.

FOLKENFLIK: Again, Dean Baquet.

BAQUET: So I thought we'd produced another, you know, holy damn story. Yeah, I was really proud of it - another big story to embrace and applaud. Sure.

FOLKENFLIK: "Caliphate" soared up the podcast charts and outraged Canadians. Here's MP Candice Bergen on the floor of Parliament.


CANDICE BERGEN: This guy is apparently in Toronto. Canadians deserve more answers from this government.


BERGEN: Why aren't they doing something about this despicable animal?


FOLKENFLIK: Chaudhry proved to be an unreliable narrator. His story to the Times contradicted what he had been telling Canadian journalists - that he joined ISIS but had not participated in any killings. After "Caliphate" posted, an outrage built. Chaudhry contradicted himself once more and denied what he had, in his own words, told The New York Times. Here's how Callimachi handled Chaudhry's renunciation. She spoke to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in May 2018.


RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: We were able to get to him both before any other media had gotten to him, but crucially before law enforcement had gotten to him.

BAQUET: She believed at the time that Chaudhry was a member of ISIS. She believed it.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet says editors relied on Callimachi's judgment to guide their own.

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: In the sixth episode of "Caliphate," Callimachi and her team wrestled with contradictions in Chaudhry's account.


CALLIMACHI: So we now see back-and-forth travel multiple times in the very period when he says that he is in Syria.

If this is actually him traveling, this completely blows a hole into his entire story. So what is going on? I don't know.

FOLKENFLIK: Callimachi and her colleagues tried to figure out how Chaudhry's story could still basically be true and agreed that maybe it could if it all happened at a different time than he had said. Intelligence officials clearly suspected that Chaudhry had links to ISIS, but there was little firm evidence. Dean Baquet now says the Times cannot prove Chaudhry ever went to Syria at all.

BAQUET: What I'm hoping is that by talking about it, people will understand that we want to win their trust and we want them to believe what we report.

FOLKENFLIK: Chaudhry is facing federal charges of perpetrating a terrorism hoax in Ontario. Callimachi declined to be interviewed for this story. She's been taken off the terrorism beat and will be given a new assignment. Dean Baquet says she's talented and deserves a chance to write a new chapter.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.