Terrorism coverage: Canada arrest casts cloud on a media star
CALLIMACHI PLAYED INTO POPULAR AMERICAN HOSTILITY TOWARDS MUSLIMS
Derek Henry Flood wasn’t looking for work in March 2018, when he sent a direct message to a New York Times reporter he admired, Rukmini Callimachi, to congratulate her on the announcement of her big new podcast about the terror group known as the Islamic State or Daesh.
By that time, major American news outlets had mostly stopped hiring freelancers like Flood in Syria, scared off by a wave of kidnappings and murders. But when Flood mentioned that he was in the northern city of Manbij, Callimachi wrote back and quickly hired him for a curious assignment. She sent himto the local market to ask about a Canadian Daesh fighter called Abu Huzaifah.
The assignment, Flood recalled thinking, was both hopeless and quite strange in its specificity, since the extremist group had been forced out of Manbij two years earlier. But he was getting $ 250 a day, so he gamely roamed the bazaar, reporting on all he saw and heard. Callimachi was singularly focused.
“She only wanted things that very narrowly supported this kid in Canada’s wild stories,” he told me in a phone interview.
Credibility of source
Flood didn’t know it at the time, but hewas part of a frantic effort at The NewYork Times to salvage the high- profile project the paper had just announced. Days earlier, producers had sent draft scripts of the series, called Caliphate, to the international editor, Michael Slackman, for his input.
But Slackman instead called the podcast team into the office of another top Times editor, Matt Purdy, a deputy managing editor who often signs off on investigative projects. The editors warned that the whole story seemed to depend on the credibility of a single character, the Canadian, whose vivid stories of executing men while warm blood “sprayed everywhere” were as lurid as theywere uncorroborated.
The Times was looking for one thing: evidence that the Canadian’s story was true.
In Manbij, Flood wandered the marketplace until a gold merchant warned him that his questions were attracting dangerous attention, prompting him to quickly board a bus out of town. Across the Middle East, other Times reporters were also asked to find confirmation of the source’s ties to Daesh, and communicated in WhatsApp channels with names like “Brilliant Seekers” and “New emir search.” But instead of finding Abu Huzaifah’s emir, they found that Daesh defectors had never heard of him.
A month later, The Times
audio team moved forward. The first episode of Caliphate appeared on April 19, 2018, marking a major step toward The Times’ realisation of its multimedia ambitions. It was promoted with a glossy marketing campaign that featured an arresting image, with the rubble of Mosul on one side and Callimachi’s face on the other.
The series was 10 parts in all, including a new, sixth episode released on May 24 of that year detailing doubts about Abu Huzaifah’s story and The Times’ efforts to confirm it. The presentation carried an obvious, if implicit, assumption: The central character of the narrative wasn’t making the whole story up.
She only wanted things that very narrowly supported this kid in Canada’s wild stories.”
Derek Henry Flood | Freelancer in Manbij, Syria
That assumption appeared to blow up a couple of weeks ago, on September 25, when Canadian police announced that they had arrested the man who called himself Abu Huzaifah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, under the country’s hoax law. The details of the Canadian investigation aren’t yet public. But the recriminations were swift among those who worked with Callimachi at The Times in the Middle East.
The Times has assigned a top editor, Dean Murphy, who heads the investigations reporting group, to review the reporting and editing process behind Caliphate and some of Callimachi’s other stories, and has also assigned an investigative correspondent with deep experience in national security reporting, Mark Mazzetti, to determine whether Chaudhry ever set foot in Syria and other questions opened by the arrest in Canada.
The crisis now surrounding the podcast is as much about The Times as it is about Callimachi. She is, in many ways, the new model of a New York Times reporter. She combines the old- school bravado of the parachuting, big foot reporter of the past with a modern savvy for surfing Twitter’s narrative waves and spotting the sorts of stories that will explode on the internet.
Callimachi’s approach to storytelling aligned with a more profound shift underway at The Times. The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.