New York Times podcast ‘Caliphate’ faces backlash over ethics

In ‘Caliphate,’ which debuted in April, New York Times investigative journalist Rukmini Callimachi asks of the war of terror, ‘Who is it that we’re really fighting?’ The result is a gripping foray into the world of Daesh recruitment, butchery, and murder. (Screenshot: NYT Trailer of Caliphate)
Updated 05 June 2018
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New York Times podcast ‘Caliphate’ faces backlash over ethics

  • The paper’s mini-series follows the story of a Canadian Daesh returnee — dubbed Abu Huzaifa Al-Kanadi — and is The New York Times’ first foray into a new style of journalism.
  • “Caliphate” follows in the footsteps of smash series such as “Serial” and “S-Town,” investigative journalism spinoffs from the hugely influential “This American Life” podcast.

LONDON: Across the world, millions of listeners are eagerly awaiting their next fix of “Caliphate,” the debut narrative documentary podcast from The New York Times.
The paper’s mini-series follows the story of a Canadian Daesh returnee — dubbed Abu Huzaifa Al-Kanadi — and is The New York Times’ first foray into a new style of journalism.
“Caliphate” follows in the footsteps of smash series such as “Serial” and “S-Town,” investigative journalism spinoffs from the hugely influential “This American Life” podcast.
“Serial,” launched in 2014, has been downloaded more than 250 million times, while S-Town, which debuted last year, was downloaded more than 10 million times in the first four days of its release — setting a new record in the podcasting world.
In “Caliphate,” which debuted in April, New York Times investigative journalist Rukmini Callimachi (right) asks of the war of terror, “Who is it that we’re really fighting?” The result is a gripping foray into the world of Daesh recruitment, butchery, and murder.
Despite the show’s gory public appeal, the podcast’s success has provoked a backlash in Canada.
While he was reportedly questioned by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services, Abu Huzaifa has not been charged with any crimes.
There were angry questions in the Canadian House of Commons last month, when Conservative House leader Candice Bergen asked the Trudeau government why Abu Huzaifa is freely being allowed to live in Canada.
“This guy is apparently in Toronto. Canadians deserve more answers from this government,” Bergen said. “Why aren’t they doing something about this despicable animal that’s walking around the country? This individual is speaking freely to the media.”
This rise in the popularity of shows such as “Caliphate” and “Serial” has highlighted an overlap between the practices of investigative journalism, law enforcement and public policy. Experts also warn of blurring the line between narrative fiction and reality, and of drawing the wrong kind of attention to historical crimes.
Scott Lucas, professor of politics at the University of Birmingham, said he has a “double-edged view” of podcasts such as “Caliphate.”
“I can admire this type of journalism, particularly when it brings new light and gets a retrial for the convicted or gets the case squashed. This can be a mark of great journalism,” Lucas told Arab News.
However, the professor said podcasts must be careful not to elevate crimes for the sake of entertainment.
“When you sensationalize it, you run into problems. ‘Caliphate’ doesn’t do that but it’s something that they need to be aware of.”
Lucas added that journalists have a duty “to tell the full story” and not lose sight of the wider causes of the phenomenon that is Daesh.
“(‘Caliphate’) mentions the beheading of (US journalist) James Foley with only a quick reference … sometimes when we stare at Daesh like this, the context is lost. The NYT should take the story as wide as possible,” he said.
Despite Callimachi potentially uncovering vital Daesh intelligence, Lucas insisted “a journalist must just carry out a journalist’s job, which is only to find information.” He explained: “A journalist is not there to carry out the provision of law enforcement. It’s up to the law enforcers to investigate criminals.
“While ‘Caliphate’ is talking about a phenomenon that is confusing and unsettling, in my opinion that line is still clear-cut between law enforcement and journalism.”
In one podcast, Abu Huzaifa confessed murder to Callimachi but later rescinded his confession when questioned by local news station CBC.
This raises questions about the witness’ veracity, said Lucas.
“Is (Callimachi) even being told a truthful story? She may have similar analysis skills with law enforcers, but it’s not her job to see whether she has enough evidence for court,” he said.
In an article published in the NYT earlier this year, Callimachi detailed how she scoured abandoned Daesh “government” posts for documents and souvenirs. Much of her team’s haul contained enlightening and granular evidence of the brutal regime’s crimes and day-to-day activities.
But did she hand any of the hastily retrieved documents — often snatched in the fresh aftermath of a Daesh stronghold takeover — to Iraqi security forces? “Of course not!” Callimachi told Arab News via Twitter.
In Lucas’ opinion, “Those ISIS documents are investigated as a journalist and not as a criminal investigator. (Security services) will contact journalists in certain cases.”
Charlie Beckett, director of the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission at the London School of Economics, said that he doesn’t see a real difference between a podcast and any other form of journalism when it comes to ethics.
“If you can justify a public interest then you have a good reason to publish evidence,” Beckett told Arab News. “As long as it does not compromise the workings of the judicial system or prevent due and fair process then this is exactly what journalism should do. How media outlets manage it must depend partly on local laws and norms, but also on the policy of that newsroom.”


What We Are Reading Today: Debating War and Peace by Jonathan Mermin

Updated 15 October 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Debating War and Peace by Jonathan Mermin

  • Mermin shows that if there is no debate over US policy in Washington, there is no debate in the news
  • The author constructs a new framework for thinking about press-government relations

The First Amendment ideal of an independent press allows American journalists to present critical perspectives on government policies and actions; but are the media independent of government in practice? Here Jonathan Mermin demonstrates that when it comes to military intervention, journalists over the past two decades have let the government itself set the terms and boundaries of foreign policy debate in the news.

Analyzing newspaper and television reporting of US intervention in Grenada and Panama, the bombing of Libya, the Gulf War, and US actions in Somalia and Haiti, he shows that if there is no debate over US policy in Washington, there is no debate in the news. 

Journalists often criticize the execution of US policy, but fail to offer critical analysis of the policy itself if actors inside the government have not challenged it. Mermin ultimately offers concrete evidence of outside-Washington perspectives that could have been reported in specific cases, and explains how the press could increase its independence of Washington in reporting foreign policy news. 

The author constructs a new framework for thinking about press-government relations, based on the observation that bipartisan support for US intervention is often best interpreted as a political phenomenon, not as evidence of the wisdom of US policy. Journalists should remember that domestic political factors often influence foreign policy debate. The media, Mermin argues, should not see a Washington consensus as justification for downplaying critical perspectives.