In May 2020, we interviewed New York Times audio producer Andy Mills about the award winning podcast Caliphate. What no one knew then, but has become clear over the last few weeks, is that the main character of the podcast fabricated most of what he told the producers of the show. In a series of articles in The New York Times and an extra episode in the Caliphate podcast, the Times explains how they were duped by Shehroze Chaudhry (nicknamed Abu Huzayfah), a Canadian citizen who claimed to have committed atrocities in Syria as a member of ISIS. In reality, the Times now writes, he “concocted gruesome stories about being an Islamic State executioner as part of a Walter Mitty-like escape from his more mundane life in a Toronto suburb and in Lahore, Pakistan, where he spent years living with his grandparents.”
After a nearly four-year investigation by the Canadian law enforcement, Chaudhry was recently charged with perpetrating a terrorist hoax, a crime that could lead to a five-year prison sentence. After this news broke in September, The New York Times started their own investigation into Chaudhry’s story. Last week they came to the same conclusion that his role in ISIS was a complete fabrication. In an extra episode of Caliphate, we hear an interview with one of these investigative reporters, Pulitzer Prize winning author Mark Mazzetti, who explains what has been uncovered, and New York Times executive director Dean Baquet, who takes full responsibility for the mistakes that were made by The Times. But the people who actually made Caliphate have remained silent, except for a brief written statement by Rukmini Callimachi, the New York Times ISIS-reporter who is the central figure and narrator of the podcast. She apologizes “for what we missed and what we got wrong” and writes that it is “gutting” to think of the colleagues and the newsroom that she let down. Callimachi will stay as a reporter with The Times, but will no longer cover terrorism.
Caliphate was the winner of a Peabody Award, it was a finalist for a Pulitzer prize and a winner of the Lowell Thomas award of the Overseas Press Club. All of these awards and the Pulitzer nomination have been rescinded since the New York Times published its findings.
Of course the news about Caliphate changes the whole story of the podcast, and raises some serious questions for narrative journalists. How far do we need to go in checking the story before publishing? Are we too gullible when stories are extremely exciting? And are we really doing all we can to see if maybe we’ve got it wrong? We reached out to producer Andy Mills to see if he is willing to do a follow up interview, but haven’t heard from him yet. If we get a chance to talk to him on the record about what happened, and the ramifications for other narrative podcasts, we will publish it here.
In the meantime, we would like to stress that we think our conversation with Andy Mills is still relevant for podcast producers, as it deals with other important aspects of what it takes to make a narrative podcast.
Jair Stein, December 23, 2020