How Caliphate Fell Apart—and What That Means for the Rest of Us

The 2018 podcast Caliphate caused me to miss my exit ramp one evening, run a red light the next morning. Rukmini Callimachi’s reporting held me spellbound, the material so inherently dramatic that her soft-voiced narrative needed no extra hype.

When, toward the end, it began to look as though her major source, Abu Huzayfah, might have lied, I felt—well, not disappointed that he might not have beheaded people, but a little let down. So much buildup, so many hours unfolding his repentance…. Still, Callimachi was transparent about her efforts to substantiate his account, and his claims were not the sort one can routinely fact-check. If anything, I felt bad for her, because she so clearly had thrown everything she had into this project, and by now I wanted to believe as much as she did. But, sure, she could have been wrong. The podcast ended inconclusively.

Why is it, by the way, that we allow reporters, physicians, scientists, and weathercasters zero margin of error? We rant about their mistakes as though personally betrayed, all the while allowing our elected representatives to roll through positions like slot machines and pretend they never thought differently.

But that is a digression. I am glad serious journalism still strives for accuracy and accountability, and while the “fake news” shouts make me wince, at least they have made public fact-checking indispensable.

Now, thanks to a forensic piece by The New York Times’ media columnist, Ben Smith, we know more about Callimachi’s reporting process. Apparently an editor had balked just before the podcast went into production, pointing out that the entire scripted narrative hung on Huzayfah’s credibility. Times reporters and freelancers all over the Middle East were dispatched to find solid proof, fast, that Huzayfah was known to ISIS.

Callimachi “only wanted things that very narrowly supported this kid in Canada’s wild stories,” one stringer told Smith. Word trickled back from other reporters: ISIS had never heard of Huzayfah. A senior producer of visual investigations confirmed that an image from Huzayfah’s phone had been taken in Syria—but not that he had traveled there.

Then a reporter in D.C. saved the day, saying he had heard from officials at two U.S. agencies that Huzayfah was a member of ISIS. He did not learn what evidence they had, or whether it was anything more than Huzayfah’s own social media. Still, it was enough for the Times, eager to launch its new audio documentary with a narrative this strong. Caliphate added the episode in which Callimachi tries to substantiate Huzayfah’s claims and called it good. The podcast was a huge hit—and an influential one.

Late last month, Huzayfah (whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry) was arrested under Canada’s hoax law. Now, the story is Callimachi herself.

Smith chronicles her ascent to superstar, and the way her editors brushed aside questions and criticism. “What is clear is that The Times should have been alert to the possibility that … it was listening too hard for the story it wanted to hear,” he writes.

In his reporting, he went back to the Syrian colleague who interpreted for Callimachi in 2014. Rukmini was not just digging for facts, the Syrian journalist said: “It felt like the story was pre-reported in her head and she was looking for someone to tell her what she already believed, what she thought would be a great story.”

A former Times reporter, Kendra Pierre-Louis, understood exactly how that could have happened. At the Times, she posted on Twitter, “you had to write a very detailed reporting memo to get your trip approved and God help you if you came back with a story that deviated.”

These comments are flashing me back—not just to aggressive editorial meetings in which I had to defend, in a small uncertain voice, my next “hard-hitting investigative piece,” but all the way back to graduate school. In order to receive your committee’s blessing upon the topic you had chosen to live and breathe for the next two years, you had to say, ahead of time, what you intended to find, prove, or conclude in your dissertation. Which meant either you spent an entire year doing the research before you sought approval, so you could know for a fact where you would wind up, or you did what everybody did and made something up—then spent the next year or two gathering examples that proved whatever you had made up. The first time the process was explained to me, I shook my head like a wet terrier. This might work in the sciences, but how the hell did I know what I was going to discover after reading all the major works of six postfeminist authors and tracing all the subtle references to housework and how they functioned in those texts?

As it turned out, they functioned powerfully, expressing lust, rage, grief, and rebellion. Jane Smiley even used canned preserves as a murder weapon. But my proposal was just a stab in the dark, and had I aimed wrong, things would have gotten messy fast. It took a while for me to fully comprehend the degree to which free intellectual inquiry is shaped in advance.

Callimachi had a similar dilemma. Smith’s awkward conclusion, given who signs his paychecks? “While some of the coverage has portrayed her as a kind of rogue actor at The Times, my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support.”

And maybe that is the problem at the root of all these preemptive conclusions. Both journalism and academe hinge on free and open research, questioning, exploration, yet at the highest levels, it is rare to hear, “Go dig around and see what you come up with” or “If you’re not sure about this, stay with it until you are.” Instead, you have to pretend confidence, because often, those with established power want their own world view reinforced, their plans bolstered, their agendas fulfilled, their budgets closed. They want to sign off on something and never have to worry about it again. And those tendencies really can encourage a very sophisticated version of “fake news.”

Going in unencumbered, Callimachi could have pressed on, chased her unease, done the reporting her colleagues were hurriedly tasked with in the hours before taping. If what she found was inconclusive, she could have shifted gears and pursued an even more fascinating story: why on earth someone would fake being a murderous terrorist.

But that might wreck the storyboard, the approved travel budget, the release schedule, the prevailing consensus about ISIS and its members, and the drummed-in necessity to break fresh ground.

I am not trying to shift the blame and defend Callimachi; she was, at the very least, overeager, and she confused a great story with a solid one. But this is a systemic problem, one made worse by the recent shifts and shortfalls in journalism and the overstimulated appetites of its audience. Take away the intense pressure to produce, on schedule, with a splash that makes the overseers look good and does not deviate from the script they approved, and we will see more honest and rigorous intellectual inquiry. That is equally true whether someone is on the ground reporting or back home trying to scale the ivory tower.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.