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The Times’ ‘Caliphate’ Scandal Illustrates the Paper’s Steep Decline

A gutsy look at the flawed reporting behind the New York Times podcast sheds light on the marketing hysteria of establishment journalism.
[Screen shot/ The New York Times]

How’s this for fake news? Six years of the New York Times’ most publicized reporting on terrorism turns out to be based on hoax and other questionable sourcing. Credit the newspaper for publishing in-house media critic Ben Smith’s devastating account of the Times’ steep decline as a once reliable–if stodgy–paper of record into the swamp of internet sensationalism, a descent based often on anti-Muslim jingoism that began years ago with a Times reporter promoting the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction as a justification for occupying Iraq, sustained more recently with lurid exaggerations of Muslim terrorism.

From The New York Times:

The crisis now surrounding the [New York Times’ Caliphate] podcast is as much about The Times as it is about Ms. [Rukmini] 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 more modern savvy for surfing Twitter’s narrative waves and spotting the sorts of stories that will explode on the internet. She embraced audio as it became a key new business for the paper, and linked her identity and her own story of fleeing Romania as a child to her work. And she told the story of ISIS through the eyes of its members.

Ms. Callimachi’s approach and her stories won her the support of some of the most powerful figures at The Times: early on, from Joe Kahn, who was foreign editor when Ms. Callimachi arrived and is now managing editor and viewed internally as the likely successor to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; and later, an assistant managing editor, Sam Dolnick, who oversees the paper’s successful audio team and is a member of the family that controls The Times.[…]

Ms. 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. And Ms. Callimachi’s success has been due, in part, to her ability to turn distant conflicts in Africa and the Middle East into irresistibly accessible stories. She was hired in 2014 from The Associated Press after she obtained internal Al Qaeda documents in Mali and shaped them into a darkly funny account of a penny-pinching terrorist bureaucracy.

But the terror beat lends itself particularly well to the seductions of narrative journalism. Reporters looking for a terrifying yarn will find terrorist sources eager to help terrify. And journalists often find themselves relying on murderous and untrustworthy sources in situations where the facts are ambiguous. If you get something wrong, you probably won’t get a call from the ISIS press office seeking a correction.

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