Caliphate’s bad source shows the dangers of the podcasting gold rush
The New York Times’ Caliphate podcast was a hit — until it wasn’t. The 2018 show, which chronicled the radicalization of a man who joined the Islamic State, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won a Peabody, and was widely regarded as a feat of narrative nonfiction storytelling. The Times’ head of film, TV, and audio, Sam Dolnick, described the show as a “cinematic experience” that “absolutely lends itself to TV” and came with “a lot of interest from Hollywood.”
Today, however, those days seem far away. The Times appended a lengthy and apologetic editor’s note to the show’s landing pages after doubts about the central character’s story surfaced. The Times reassigned the show’s star reporter and host, Rukmini Callimachi, and dropped a full episode in its feed discussing what went wrong. The paper of record, well-known for its audio work with The Daily, now has a stain on its podcasting endeavors.
This is a monumental moment for the Times, for sure, but also for the much-hyped and growing podcasting industry. Podcasting has become a critical bet for many media companies that hope a cheaper investment in audio and podcasting might yield high returns in IP deals from streaming or video production companies. For many, podcasting has become a major revenue source, both because of advertising and IP opportunities. But the push for monetizable content, specifically that which can be sold to Hollywood executives, goes against typical journalist rigor. Fact-checking takes time, as does fully reporting a story. Hollywood moves fast — and who knows how long those podcasting deals will stick around.
In an interview with NPR today, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet admitted that the paper wanted Caliphate’s story so badly that it didn’t adequately vet the facts.
“I think we were so in love with it that when we saw evidence that maybe he was a fabulist, when we saw evidence that he was making some of it up, we didn’t listen hard enough,” he says, of Shehroze Chaudhry, the central character in Caliphate.
In this case, Baquet says the Times did not have evidence Chaudhry had ever been to Syria or that he had joined ISIS or killed civilians for the group, all of which is claimed in the podcast. NPR also reports that top editors who have edited complex written investigative pieces saw red flags but ended up giving in to an “ambitious audio investigative team presenting a compelling narrative yarn.”
But the problem is much bigger than Caliphate or The New York Times. The true crime genre, while widely popular, was in this spotlight last year over allegations of plagiarism against the show Crime Junkie. Cathy Frye, a former journalist who worked for 15 years at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, claims the show’s hosts ripped off her reporting without crediting her. The episodes in question were then suddenly deleted.
Robin Warder, who hosts The Trail Went Cold podcast, told BuzzFeed News at the time that the broader true crime genre has a problem with sourcing and facts.
“There are sometimes issues in the true crime podcasting world with shows not citing their sources, and some podcasts don’t do any research besides reading off Wikipedia,” he told BuzzFeed News. “But Crime Junkie is probably the most high-profile example of this.”
Meanwhile, reputable shows like S-Town, from Serial Productions, which is now owned by the Times, have had to handle the drama of working with real names and people. Serial Productions settled a lawsuit in May this year over the alleged use of the deceased subject’s name for commercial purposes, violating the Alabama Right of Publicity law. (Participant Media acquired the show’s feature rights and is currently developing it to become a full-length film.)
The push for IP is clearly strong, as is the possibility for revenue for the media companies, stars, their agents, and all of the other Hollywood players. A Deadline report published last week claims the number of podcasts in various stages of development to be adapted into TV or film programs is now well into three figures. Wondery, a podcasting network reportedly in acquisition talks with Amazon, has over 16 shows in different stages of television adaptation, for example. The gold rush for podcast-generated IP is driving demand for shows like Caliphate, which have a clear plot and characters.
“We’re first and foremost a podcast company and we create stories for the ear first,” Jen Sargent, Wondery’s COO tells Deadline. “But the very nature of the types of shows that we’re greenlighting – they’re character rich – means they do lend themselves to TV. We do now have an eye on whether [a show] can be developed for TV because it’s become such a lucrative part of our revenue stream.”
Wondery has made its name through high-profile narrative nonfiction shows, like Dirty John, which was buoyed by Los Angeles Times reporting. But today’s Caliphate news shows that strategy has its own risks. The desire to produce a cinematic but true podcast naturally creates tension — all storytellers want a good plot, but an especially juicy narrative likely has a better chance of high returns. The snag happens when producers seek a story but have to contend with facts.
Even well-established, audio-focused endeavors can get fact-checking wrong. In 2012, Ira Glass’ team at This American Life retracted its most popular episode at the time about a man visiting Apple’s manufacturing plant in China. The person behind the episode, Mike Daisey, is a theater performer rather than a reporter. Critically, he’d been telling a story similar to the one that aired on This American Life on stage for years. But apparently, many details in that show were made up.
“Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand,” Glass said in an episode detailing the retraction. “And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.”
Glass says his team fact-checked the story’s details about Apple and its manufacturer Foxconn, but when they asked Daisey for his interpreter’s contact information, who’s referred to as Cathy in the episode, Daisey said her real name was actually Anna and didn’t provide any contact information for her. The team didn’t push him.
“I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give us contact information for his interpreter we should’ve killed the story rather than run it,” Glass said.
Real life gets mundane, and Daisey seemingly knew an embellished story performed better on stage, and in podcasting, than the true one.
None of this is to say nonfiction podcasts are in dire trouble, but when dealing with real facts and truth, extra scrutiny is needed. That isn’t ideal for a burgeoning industry that’s looking to cash in fast on remarkable stories. But as The New York Times now knows, the desire for a good story can’t outweigh fact-checking. As more journalistic outfits look to podcasting for revenue, they’ll have to solve the real problem: facts aren’t always sexy, and Hollywood wants a good story.