An Arrest in Canada Casts a Shadow on a New York Times Star, and The Times

An Arrest in Canada Casts a Shadow on a New York Times Star, and The Times


She was seen as a star — a standing that helped her survive a series of questions raised over the last six years by colleagues in the Middle East, including the bureau chiefs in Beirut, Anne Barnard, and Iraq, Ms. Coker, as well as the Syrian journalist who interpreted for her on a particularly contentious story about American hostages in 2014, Karam Shoumali. And it helped her weather criticism of specific stories from Arabic-speaking academics and other journalists. Many of those arguments have been re-examined in recent days in The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. C.J. Chivers, an experienced war correspondent, clashed particularly bitterly with Mr. Kahn over Ms. Callimachi’s work, objecting to her approach to reporting on Western hostages taken by Islamic militants. Mr. Chivers warned editors of what he saw as her sensationalism and inaccuracy, and told Mr. Slackman, three Times people said, that turning a blind eye to problems with her work would “burn this place down.”

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.

“If you scrutinized anyone’s record on reporting at Syria, everyone made grave, grave errors,” said Theo Padnos, a freelance journalist held hostage for two years and now working on a book, who said that The Times’s coverage of his cellmate’s escape alerted his captors to his complicity in it. “Rukmini is on the hot seat at the moment, but the sins were so general.”

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 video shows 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.

Ms. Callimachi told me in an email that she’d received warnings from the F.B.I. of credible threats against her, and that in any event, that moment in the podcast “is not about ISIS or its presence in the suburbs, but about how deeply they had seeped into my mind.”


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