The New York Times star reporter Rukmini Callimachi had been widely criticized for her exaggerated reporting about the Islamic State and terrorism. But her editors kept supporting and promoting her stories. That finally ended when Canada recently indicted one Shehroze Chaudhry, also known as Abu Huzaifa, for falsely claiming to have been an ISIS member. Chaudhry had made up his blood dripping stories. He had never been with ISIS and had never been to Syria or Iraq.
But the unverified stories of Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi had been the central element of the NYT’s ten part Caliphate podcast by Rukmini Callimachi.
The failure of her reporting finally was so evident that the NYT had to allow its media columnist Ben Smith to write about the issue. Remarkably his reporting was published in the Business section of the paper.
It is a pretty devastating report about the support Callimachi got from her editors even as an ever growing number of her collogues criticized her over-sensationalized reporting. The root cause of the problem is the way in which the Times, as well as other news media, try to change from news providers to narrative creators:
The crisis now surrounding the podcast is as much about The Times as it is about Ms. Callimachi. She is, in many ways, the new model of a New York Times reporter. She combines the old school bravado of the parachuting, big foot reporter of the past, with a more modern savvy for surfing Twitter’s narrative waves and spotting the sorts of stories that will explode on the internet.
Ms. Callimachi’s approach and her stories won her the support of some of the most powerful figures at The Times: early on, from Joe Kahn, who was foreign editor when Ms. Callimachi arrived and is now managing editor and viewed internally as the likely successor to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; and later, an assistant managing editor, Sam Dolnick, who oversees the paper’s successful audio team and is a member of the family that controls The Times.
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.
The highlighted sentence is the essence of the piece. It was even repeated in the caption of a picture accompanying it.
The striving for ‘juicy narratives’ is the biggest mistake of current news media. Their attempt to copy the success of Hollywood dramas by creating narratives has destroyed their credibility. It has put incentives on the wrong aspect of a reporter’s work. Instead of requiring well checked facts the editors are now asking for confirmations of preconceived tales:
What is clear is that The Times should have been alert to the possibility that, in its signature audio documentary, it was listening too hard for the story it wanted to hear — “rooting for the story,” as The Post’s Erik Wemple put it on Friday.
Callimachi is far from the only one guilty of creating fake news to fulfill her editors demand of narratives. The four year long coverage of ‘Russiagate’, the fairytale collection of made up connections between Donald Trump and Russia, was full of such. The editorial push towards narratives is rooted in the desire to create clickbait and to generate a social media echo around the reporting. That may be profitable in the short term but it is also a guarantee for a long term failure.
False of hyped narratives will over time get debunked. People then lose trust in the media that provided them with the fake news. That again will cause a long term loss of readership.
A similar case of falling for ‘narratives’ happened to German magazine Der Spiegel. Its star author Claas Relotius wrote fake stories on a large scale. Whether he wrote about Trump voters in Arizona or about a little girl in Syria, Relotius invented the witnesses to the ‘news’ he provided. He made up ‘facts’ and described himself visiting places he had never been to. For years there had been warnings that many of the detail Relotius provided were wrong. But his editors promoted him because the slick ‘narratives’ he delivered were exactly what they wanted. Der Spiegel, a once universally trusted source of news, is now joked about as ‘the former news magazine’.
The media trend towards providing narratives instead of verified facts also increases the danger of falling for manipulation. Governments as well as political marketing campaigns love to provide ready made tales. It is easier and cheaper for media to pick these up and repeat them instead of digging into the facts and their logic. We thus get false tales about chemical weapon use in Syria and a Skripal poisoning ‘narrative’ that does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny.
Can we please have real news? Just the new facts, with no ‘narrative’ or moral tales attached to them? Facts that are verified and described in the context of the issue they relate to? Do they fit the logic of already known ones? Do they make sense? How may they influence further developments?
To provide the above can easily fill a reporter’s day of work. It is usually enough material to write an 800 words report. Its sufficient for the reader to create his own narrative from it.
Dear news media. Please go back to providing real news. If you do so you will eventually regain my trust. That will be, in the long run, a much more valuable asset than the social media chatter you are currently trying to generate.