Back in 2018 I listened with great interest to the New York Times podcast series Caliphate. This ten part, multi-award winning series, narrated by the journalist Rukmini Callimachi, reported on ISIS, focusing on the testimony of Abu Huzaifa, née Shehroze Chaudhry. I heard Huzaifa describe, in interview, his online radicalization, journey into Syria, joining ISIS as a foreign fighter, and even performing executions.
The podcast made headlines, because this former ISIS member had returned to Canada where he was a citizen living freely. In discussion he remained sympathetic while disillusioned with the caliphate. Questions were raised in the Canadian parliament and inquiries made. At the time there was a great deal of concern in the media about fighters returning to the West after the collapse of ISIS. The media had reported with grim fascination on the alienated young people in the West who had been radicalized via social media and then traveling to Syria to join their new cause. ISIS itself had played up to its own sensational image by posting gruesome execution videos online.
But Huzaifa was lying. The entire podcast was based on a lie. He was a fabulist who no doubt harbored genuine sympathies for ISIS, but had likely never even entered Syria and certainly hadn’t joined the Caliphate. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded their investigation they prosecuted Huzaifa not as a terrorist, but for committing a terrorism hoax. (The case was later dropped in exchange for an admission in court to lying about joining ISIS and agreeing to a $10000 peace bond.) In late 2020 the New York Times issued a retraction.
Journalists live and die by access. Access to evidence, sources, records, and anything at all on which a story can be built. This leaves journalists in constant danger of getting burned by their sources. Leakers are notoriously difficult to work with. Often they are simply disgruntled former employees with a particular axe to grind, and the very same motivations that lead them to talking to a journalist make them suspect.
Sometimes the betrayals can seem utterly inexplicable. In 2020 the New Yorker informed its readers that a celebrated and award winning story on the “rent-a-family” industry in Japan, was compromised because no less than three of the sources used in the story had been lying outright to the writer, Elif Batuman. As Ryu Spaeth outlines in the New Republic:
The trouble began a year after the article was published, when a Japanese magazine reported that an employee of Family Romance had pretended to be a client of the company in a documentary produced by the giant Japanese broadcaster NHK. NHK confirmed that Ishii had told his staffers to carry out the ruse. The New Yorker then began its own investigation, culminating in the stunning admissions that were published this week: that “Kazushige Nishida,” the lonely widower, was in fact married and did not provide his real name; that “Reiko Shimada,” the lonely single mother, was in fact married and did not provide her real name; and that, craziest of all, Reiko and Yuichi Ishii are married to each other. Despite these elaborate deceptions, they all insisted that their stories were otherwise true.
In the aftermath of such retractions, the postmortem can present the mistakes made in the light of a morality play. In the case of Caliphate, the Times admitted that the series lacked the “regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter.” And on a practical level, they should have done reverse image searches on the pictures Huzaifa provided as evidence of his travels, and more thoroughly examined his passport and travel records.
But reading Ben Smith’s media column (in the very same newspaper) you are presented with a more expansive set of sins. The kind of narratives that Callimachi actively sought to present not only predisposed her to placing too much trust in a dubious source, but those narratives were themselves problematic.
Terrorism coverage can also play easily into popular American hostility toward Muslims. Ms. Callimachi at times depicted terrorist supersoldiers, rather than the alienated and dangerous young men common in many cultures. That hype shows up in details like The Times’s description of the Charlie Hebdo shooters acting with “military precision.” By contrast, The Washington Post’s story suggested that the killers were, in fact, untrained, and noted a video showing them “cross each other’s paths as they advance up the street — a type of movement that professional military personnel are trained to avoid.” On Twitter, where she has nearly 400,000 followers, Ms. Callimachi speculated on possible ISIS involvement in high-profile attacks, including the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, which has not been attributed to the group. At one moment in the Caliphate podcast, Ms. Callimachi hears the doorbell ring at home and panics that ISIS has come for her, an effective dramatic flourish but not something American suburbanites had any reason to fear.
This particular critique is interesting because although Huzaifa’s story was false, his story more or less follows the arc of the very real foreign fighters who joined ISIS. “Jihadi John” really did grow up in London, get a degree, and then later join ISIS and perform a series of beheadings that were recorded and uploaded online. But of course, by the time Caliphate was being made, Jihadi John was dead, leaving him very far from being inclined to offer any reporter at the Times his exclusive story.
Back with the rent-a-family story, Ryu Speath, writing at the New Republic, considered the possibility that the New Yorker fell into the “weird Japan” trap of reporting on the country to satisfy a preconceived notion of Japan’s otherness, oddness, and in-explicability.
Some will say Batuman, a gifted writer, got the story wrong because she had little professional or personal familiarity with Japan. But I think that only makes the Japanese seem even more mysterious, as if these strange creatures can only be understood through lengthy anthropological immersion. Anyway, Japanese journalists fell for the story, too. (No one is more fascinated by Japan’s weirdness than the Japanese themselves.) And everyone is susceptible to cultural blind spots. As I wrote earlier this year, I long viewed the Japanese fondness for sanitary masks as evidence of some deep-seated cultural defect. Now that I wear a mask myself every day, it’s amazing to me that I could not see the obvious, banal reason people use masks: to protect their health.
For all this I should say that I am a massive fan of journalists and the work they do. I consume considerable amounts of American journalism, and subscribe to both the Times and the New Yorker. There is a convenient argument that the retractions and subsequent analysis of their failings provide evidence for the very editorial standards these institutions failed to meet, but that argument is a little too convenient. Smith’s column strongly suggests that the flaws were fundamentally institutional, and the same thing could likely happen again. That said, I do think the retractions mean something.
Ultimately I want to sit down and read reporting from someone who has been there, talked to the people who were there, and gone through the evidence. I want to read articles which have been through a rigorous editorial process. I want to read analysis by people who have spent a lot of time thinking about an issue. Obviously I don’t want to be imbibing the talking points of corporate lobbyists, paying heed to astro-turfing organizations, treating cop-aganda credulously, letting green-washing get a free pass, or uncritically accepting press releases from the military-industrial complex. But assuming good faith, I’m ready to accept the inevitable mistakes, bias, and omissions.
Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. But that doesn’t mean you should stop reading the papers. Don’t expect the “truth” to be handed to you on a platter. Remember that some things really are too good to be true. But most of all, don’t shoot the messenger.