Long before The New York Times began its review of the reporting in her critically acclaimed podcast, the paper was aware of deep concerns about star correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s work, including from the family of James Foley, the American journalist brutally killed by ISIS in 2014.
“She left our family with a lot of pain from her un-professionalism and lies,” James’ brother Michael Foley told The Daily Beast in an email.
Last Friday, Canadian law enforcement arrested Shehroze Chaudhry, a 25-year-old Canadian man who claimed for years that he had worked as an executioner in the Islamic State. Chaudhry became a source of public fascination after attracting media attention from major outlets including The Times, which told his story in the multi-part investigative podcast series Caliphate, hosted by Callimachi, a Pulitzer finalist and foreign correspondent for the paper.
Canadian authorities now claim that Chaudhry, better known by his alias Abu Huzayfah, fabricated his story, and have charged him with concocting a terrorist hoax. And while the story raised eyebrows among some of the rank-and-file staff at the paper of record, Friday’s arrest was not the first time the Times has been forced to take a closer look at Callimachi’s reporting.
Since at least 2015, the Times has heard—and, in several cases, dismissed—warnings that Callimachi got stories wrong, questions about the legitimacy of her sourcing, and concerns about her treatment of sensitive source material. Now, revelations that one of Callimachi’s biggest stories may have been based on a hoax has resurfaced old warnings and questions that colleagues, experts, and sources previously raised about her reporting.
“If she told me it was sunny outside, I’d double check,” one senior Times journalist told The Daily Beast.
A spokesperson for the Times defended Callimachi’s work on Wednesday evening, saying, “Rukmini is a brave and talented reporter whose body of work has shed new light on how ISIS functioned, attracted recruits and stayed in power… As with all of our journalism, when we make a mistake we endeavor to correct it. We announced earlier that we are undertaking an examination of Abu Huzayfah’s history and the way we presented him in our podcast in light of new and important questions about him and his motivations.”
But potential problems with the Caliphate star’s journalism have been a subject for concern at the Times for years. Reporters and editors at the paper have questioned the credibility of the source at the center of Caliphate, the legitimacy of ISIS documents published in the paper last year, and the veracity of a Syrian journalist at the center of a 2014 profile who claimed to have seen Foley in prison.
“She’s too big to fail,” the senior Times journalist said of Callimachi.
Multiple journalists at the Times have reviewed her work after it was published. In 2018, for example, Deputy Managing Editor Matt Purdy reviewed some of Callamachi’s previous work and spoke with Times colleagues following general concerns that were flagged internally, according to two people spoken to as part of the process. It is unclear what conclusion the review, which has previously not been reported, reached.
A Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “Matt never conducted an investigation of her,” but did not deny that there was a review of Callimachi’s work.
Even some of Callimachi’s subjects, including the family members of the late reporter James Foley—who was taken hostage by ISIS and beheaded in 2014—raised serious complaints with the paper’s management about elements of her stories. During her time covering ISIS in the mid-2010s, Callimachi extensively reported on the captivity of Foley, who was captured by militants in 2012 while on freelance reporting duty in Syria, held for ransom, and eventually beheaded by jihadists in a gruesome video published by ISIS.
Michael Foley, James’s brother, objected to Callimachi’s coverage. In a January 2015 letter to then-Times international editor Joseph Kahn, he laid out a litany of inaccuracies in her work and demanded a correction.
“I would also like to bring to your attention, the extreme unprofessionalism and threats Rukmini directed to a grieving family only days after Jim’s horrific and public execution. On 2 occasions by phone, starting on Aug. 22nd, Rukmini threatened to publish a detailed torture story if I did not comply with her interview request,” read Michael’s letter, which The Daily Beast reviewed.
Foley disputed that ISIS captors had waterboarded James multiple times and abused him more than other hostages. He also pushed back strongly on Callimachi’s claim that James, a Catholic, had made an authentic conversion to Islam while in captivity.
”More specifically, I was told that if I did not publically discuss my concerns with US government support, that an article detailing Jim Foley’s torture would be published. She cited pressure from her editors to print the torture story if I did not comply. I did ultimately bow to her threats, gave her a lengthy interview and she published torture accounts anyway.”
In an Aug. 26, 2014, email from Callimachi to Michael Foley, the journalist laid out that the Times was preparing to publish a story about an “uneven policy on ransom-paying” and pushed for an interview with the Foley family. “To date, the New York Times appears to be the only major news organization that has not gotten an interview with anyone in your family—this despite the fact that we have known—and sat—on the details of your brother’s captivity for over a year at the request of your mother and father,” she continued in the email referenced by Michael. “And my editors are beginning to question whether abiding by your family’s wishes was the right thing to do.”
“Rukmini’s messages to Mr. Foley were reviewed by editors and found to be appropriate,” a Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
And after Kahn ultimately defended his reporter’s work, Michael sent Margaret Sullivan—at that time the paper’s public editor—a letter further attempting to flag issues with Callimachi’s coverage once again.
Sullivan appeared to take the family’s complaints about Callimachi’s reporting seriously. Her April 2015 column attempted to address Michael’s concerns, as well as other concerns about the veracity of Callimachi’s story about a Syrian journalist who claimed to have seen Foley in prison, but did not come to a solid conclusion about whether the incidents were handled appropriately by the paper.
“I laid out in writing [including witness statements] where [Callimachi] was well off base,” Michael told The Daily Beast.
Initially, following Friday’s arrest of Callimachi’s podcast subject, the Times stood by its star’s reporting.
In a statement, a Times spokesperson said the exploration of Chaudhry’s legitimacy was “central to every episode of Caliphate that featured him.” The paper said it checked his accounts against accounts from his family, teachers in Pakistan, other ISIS members, flight records, US government sources, and other documents. Callimachi also defended the podcast by distancing herself from Huzayfah, saying the “narrative tension of our podcast ‘Caliphate’ is the question of whether his account is true.”
But just a few days later, the paper began walking back its statement.
In a Wednesday email, a Times spokesperson said the paper is taking a harder look at the series. And in another statement that same day, the Times said it was “undertaking a fresh examination of his history and the way we presented him in our series.”
When asked in a staff meeting about the reporting, Times executive editor Dean Baquet went even further, saying the paper has put together a team to re-report the story.
“We are going to look for the truth of his story and inevitably we are going to also ask the question about how we presented him so we are going to put together a group of reporters and take a new look at the story, his story and inevitably how we presented his story,” he said, after being pressed by staff about Huzayfah’s recent arrest.
And while the podcast acknowledged the paper’s skepticism about Chaudhry, concerns about his legitimacy ran deep before the podcast was released.
The Daily Beast has learned that Caliphate was sent back for more work after questions were raised by people working on the project about Chaudhry’s credibility. More reporting on the matter was ordered.
According to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, International Editor Michael Slackman questioned Callimachi about her Caliphate reporting in a meeting with others including Purdy; Lisa Tobin, executive producer of audio; and Sam Dolnick, assistant managing editor. According to multiple people familiar with the situation, the concerns Slackman raised were the primary driver for the sixth episode of the podcast, which introduced serious doubts about Huzayfah’s credibility.
“As part of the normal editing process, editors raised questions and more reporting was conducted,” a Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “Then when the team discovered that Huzayfah had misled them about key aspects of his story, they decided to continue reporting in order to document his inconsistencies and included those findings in the podcast.”
But in media appearances, Callimachi has seemed to imply that Chaudhry was indeed legitimate, and had told the Times the truth because the paper came across him at an ideal moment.
In an interview with the CBC in 2018, Callimachi said the series had identified “holes” for listeners, but that the “scaffolding” of his statements had been verified. According to Callimachi, Chaudhry was “speaking to us in this window of time when he essentially thought that he had slipped through the cracks.”
“Everything changed after, really, the next day when he realized he was under investigation. He became more and more anxious as we neared publication. At first he asked us not to publish. I told him that we couldn’t do that,” Callimachi said. “As we neared publication, he actually began to threaten us and to say: ‘If you publish this, I’m just going to say that I made it up,’ which is what you saw basically last week.”
When awards season rolled around, Slackman and Purdy opposed entering the podcast for a Pulitzer Prize—but they were overruled by others on the masthead, according to people familiar with the matter.
“Editors typically lobby for stories that come from their own desks,” a spokesperson for The Times countered. “Then senior editors select what gets submitted.”
Within the Times newsroom, some of Callimachi’s supporters framed the critics as simply being jealous of her success and large social-media presence, which often generates buzz for her work with viral Twitter threads. Supporters said that reporting on extremism in conflict zones can be difficult because information is hard to verify, and some foreign reporters were perhaps envious of the plaudits and high profile Callimachi has obtained through her aggressive reporting.
Chief among those supporters is Kahn, who insiders said has defended Callimachi to internal critics, and who is considered a frontrunner to replace Baquet when the current top editor leaves the job.
Still, few disputed that there have been plenty of public instances in which Callimachi faced scrutiny for her reporting techniques.
On occasion, squabbles have spilled out into public view, including a bizarre 2018 incident chronicled by the Washington Post in which then-Baghdad bureau chief Margaret Coker left the paper after the Times concluded that she may have essentially worked with the Iraqi government to keep Callimachi from entering the country. According to the Post, Coker believed Callimachi was reckless in her on-the-ground reporting tactics in Iraq, and had pushed the boundaries of acceptable journalism at the paper.
In 2019, Callimachi authored a story based on what was purported to be based on ISIS receipts. But one expert who initially attested to the veracity of the documents later reversed their statement, saying that when they reviewed more receipts, they became convinced that the items were actually fake. The Times stood by its story, appending a note to the piece saying “questions were raised about the authenticity of the documents,” and publishing a follow-up story saying experts were “divided” on the authenticity of the documents.
As Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple pointed out, the paper had “punted the matter to its readers.”
And in another instance, the paper had another reporter re-trace Callimachi’s reporting, ultimately resulting in a correction. Some reporters at the Times were skeptical of claims made by Louai Abo Aljoud, a Syrian journalist profiled by Callimachi in 2014 who claims he was imprisoned by militants, and said he saw western prisoners including Foley. Tim Arango, a longtime Middle East reporter for the Times and the former bureau chief in Baghdad, interviewed Abo Aljoud again after Callimachi’s piece and the correction was affixed to her story. (The incident was partially disclosed by Sullivan after Foley’s family raised concerns about Callimachi’s reporting.)
In early 2018, the Times made an unusual disclosure in one of Callimachi’s articles that sparked a debate within the paper’s newsroom. In its story about a raid in Niger that left four American soldiers dead, the paper noted that it had purchased the rights to a helmet-cam video footage of a slain American special operations soldier that had been obtained by Agence Nouakchott d’Information, a video service the Times previously described as having terrorist ties.
The video raised eyebrows among Callimachi’s Times colleagues, who wondered which editorial leaders had approved the purchase of the video, an unusual arrangement for the famously by-the-book news organization that does not typically pay for information used in stories. According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Callimachi herself had purchased the video for several thousand dollars, an arrangement that prompted uneasiness among some Times colleagues.
A four-figure sum of money was paid for what has been described by multiple people at the paper as an “ISIS propaganda video.”
“Because the video was sensitive she went to the standards desk, which is how reporters in the newsroom are encouraged to handle such material. The standards desk reviewed and approved the transaction,” a Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
The purchase also seemed to put the paper at odds with its own past characterization of the video’s seller.
In an April 2017 story co-authored by Callimachi, the Times described Agence Nouakchott d’Information as an organization “associated with Al Qaeda’s branches in Africa.” But less than a year later, its 2018 story described the ANI as simply “a news agency in Mauritania.”
Still, despite increased scrutiny, Callimachi said she welcomes the criticism and examination of her work.
In a Wednesday evening tweet, posted shortly after the Washington Post published its deep dive questioning some of her past reporting, Callimachi wrote: “I welcome the @nytimes’ effort to re-examine” her work on the Caliphate podcast.
—With additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley.