New York Times insiders say tensions are still simmering over its response to the 'Caliphate' disaster, and it reveals the internal politics of its red-hot audio business

  • The recent retraction of the core of the "Caliphate" podcast has been a major blow to the prestigious podcast unit behind The New York Times' runaway success "The Daily."
  • Some Times staffers say that the accountability over the retraction has been insufficient.
  • Audio is highly lucrative for The Times, bringing in $29 million of revenue 2019. To some, the episode has exposed how it's become a big power center, with the associated politics and risk of chasing stories that can be too good to be true.
  • The New York Times declined to comment on the financials and said it was "evaluating how we provide support for investigative audio journalism."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The unraveling of The New York Times' "Caliphate" podcast has been a major black eye for the paper's prestigious and lucrative audio unit, unleashing a wider reckoning within the paper.

Several Times staffers told Insider that there is a growing feeling inside the broader newsroom that the institution mishandled the fallout and has not held enough people accountable. 

Meanwhile, the Times' in-house standards team is cracking down on practices like the use of anonymous sources. "They are clamping down on everything and making everyone's life hard," said one Times reporter.

The incident, in which the Times was duped by the source that underpinned the narrative in the "Caliphate" story, marked an enormous embarrassment for an audio division that has become the envy of the media industry thanks to "The Daily," the paper's flagship podcast hosted by Michael Barbaro. 

Read More: The New York Times says there were 'significant falsehoods' at the center of its blockbuster ISIS podcast 'Caliphate'

Generating about 4 million weekdaily downloads, "The Daily" has been a launchpad for other Times audio projects. "Caliphate" was introduced on "The Daily" in 2018. 

A week before Christmas, the Times announced the results of a two-month internal review which found that the podcast did not meet its editorial standards. Hosted by star terrorism correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, "Caliphate" relied heavily on an account from a Canadian resident who had claimed to have taken part in ISIS executions but was later arrested for allegedly faking terrorist activity. After the Times was unable to corroborate the man's account, the paper retracted the core piece of the podcast's storyline. The series was stripped of its Pulitzer finalist status.

Up until now, NYT Audio was a bright spot for the Times. "The Daily" became the top news podcast in the country and made the Times' audio unit extremely profitable. In 2019, NYT Audio made more than $29 million in revenue (nearly all of it advertising revenue), according to a Times employee with direct knowledge. NYT Audio's expenses that year were just over $8 million, the employee said. The Times audio unit has considered adding a permanent afternoon version of "The Daily," according to a person familiar with the discussions.

"We don't comment on financial data beyond what is disclosed in our earnings reports," said a Times spokesperson.

This story of "Caliphate's" behind-the-scenes fallout and NYT Audio's growth as a power center at the paper is based on conversations with eight Times staffers.

'Everyone at The New York Times wants a podcast'

The cachet of the audio unit has vaulted the question of who gets to voice a podcast — and who gets to promote their own written journalism on "The Daily" — into a topic of debate inside the paper. 

"Everyone at The New York Times wants a podcast, and some people have tried to bargain that into their job offers," said one Times staffer.

The "Caliphate" incident renewed scrutiny of Mills' past behavior while working at the WNYC show "Radiolab," The Washington Post reported. The incidents, which included Mills pouring a beer over a colleague's head, were first detailed in a 2018 New York magazine article. Last week, "Radiolab," issued an apology: "In the past few weeks, there have been a lot of conversations about the tolerance of harassment and bad behavior in our industry and in particular of a person who worked on our show five years ago, Andy Mills." Mills did not return a request for comment for this story. 

"We take allegations of misconduct seriously. We thoroughly review all complaints received, and take any necessary corrective action," Dolnick wrote in a letter responding to the Public Radio Program Directors Association on Tuesday. 

After the "Caliphate" review was published, Times executive editor Dean Baquet sat with Barbaro for an interview about what went wrong. "When The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom," Baquet told him. That didn't happen with "Caliphate," he added.

The Times' decision to use Barbaro's show as the vehicle for an apology also faced external criticism, given the fact that Barbaro is engaged to Lisa Tobin, "Caliphate's" executive producer and a top audio employee at the paper. NPR reported on Barbaro's murky role in saving face after the scandal, sliding into reporters' Twitter DMs to argue over how they characterized the "retraction."

Barbaro did not return requests for comment for this story, but Dolnick said in his letter that Barbaro "deeply regrets" the messages and that editors had "discussed their expectations with him going forward."

Dolnick wrote that Baquet's interview with Barbaro was an "audio version of our editor's note, not an accountability interview, which Dean had already given to NPR." He added that running a "Daily" episode with Mills so soon after the note was a production mistake given the pre-recorded nature of holiday programming. "In light of 'Caliphate,' we should have changed plans," he wrote.

Still, some staffers inside the Times wonder if there will be any other response from management. They have been left complaining to each other about the emboldened standards team. Some described the environment as feeling like a much less severe version of the 2003 Jason Blair fabrication scandal, which led to the ouster of the two top editors and the creation of a public editor role covering the Times' own journalism, a role that no longer exists.

"Responsibility for 'Caliphate' lies with the institution, as our executive editor Dean Baquet has said, as well as with the reporter, the producers and the audio team," the Times spokesperson said. "We are evaluating how we provide support for investigative audio journalism as well as the next assignments for producers and reporters of 'Caliphate.'"

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Some Times reporters credited how the paper has handled the aftermath. They pointed to the fact that the Times allowed media columnist Ben Smith to publish an October column describing how Callimachi's star rose at the paper despite red flags. The Times also put significant resources into re-reporting what went wrong and published the findings. 

"I think it's a needed maturation for the audio division," said one Times reporter. Figuring out how major audio projects can receive the same kind of scrutiny as investigating front page stories is "something they need to work out going forward because masthead editors already have a lot on their plates," said another.

But as "The Daily" and NYT Audio became a greater center of power within the paper, some staffers feel like the unit has morphed into a new way for management to dole out prestige to staffers they deem worthy. The risks of choosing favorites — and embarking on the kind of cinematic, narrative-driven stories that can easily be too-good-to-be true — were laid bare by the "Caliphate" episode.

With the standards team bearing down, some reporters who were not involved with "Caliphate's" collapse are griping about the new newsroom environment. "There has been a chilling effect," one of the reporters said. 

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