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Public Radio Stations Rebuke 'N.Y. Times' Over Actions In Correcting 'Caliphate'

Updated 9:48 a.m. ET

An influential group of more than 20 public radio stations in major cities across the country are condemning the actions of The New York Times and its star host of the hit podcast The Daily, Michael Barbaro, in addressing the collapse of the newspaper's award-winning audio series Caliphate.

An internal review by The Times found it had failed to heed red flags indicating that the man it relied upon for an extended narrative about the allure of terrorism could not be trusted to tell the truth.

Canadian authorities charged the man with a terrorism hoax over his claim that he had become an executioner for ISIS. The Canadian federal charges forced The Times to confront long-simmering doubts about the series. Its fresh reporting by a new team of reporters led to the conclusion that the central figure in their narrative for Caliphate was probably a fabricator. The Times later issued a retraction for most of the podcast series.

Yet the objections from the public radio stations stem not from the journalistic lapses, but from Barbaro's role in publicly setting them out for the newspaper's listening audience while pressuring other journalists behind the scenes to temper their criticism of the podcast.

"We, along with our audiences, place tremendous value on the fact that our journalism is free from influence of any kind, whether motivated by financial, political, or personal enrichment reasons," said the letter sent by the Public Radio Program Directors Association late Monday night. "This is our ethical compass. We feel Barbaro's actions are in direct conflict with our ethical guidelines and they call his general credibility into question."

The Daily reaches more than 2 million listeners weekly as a program on public radio stations each week, according to American Public Media, its distributor. That's in addition to the more than 4 million people who The Times says download it each day as a podcast.

"We would just like The New York Times to admit this was a failure on their part and to work on remedying the situation," Abby Goldstein, the association's president and executive director, told NPR.

Sam Dolnick, New York Times assistant managing editor, wrote a response to the letter, which the paper released Tuesday morning. He said when Executive Editor Dean Baquet sat for an interview with Barbaro to discuss Caliphate, it was intended to serve as an audio version of the editor's note, rather than an effort at accountability journalism. Dolnick, a member of the Sulzberger family that has a controlling ownership of the paper, noted the paper's extensive corrective reporting about Caliphate was published in print and online.

In the podcast episode added to the Caliphate feed, Barbaro's prompts allowed Baquet to sketch out key points, Dolnick wrote. He noted that Baquet had submitted to an extensive interview with NPR on the same day about the series.

As for Barbaro's interactions with other reporters, Dolnick acknowledged that recipients felt their criticism was unwelcome: "Michael deeply regrets that. Editors have discussed their expectations with him going forward."

In addition to Barbaro, the letter from station officials took issue with the continued presence of producer Andy Mills, a creator and costar of Caliphate whose behavior has come under sustained critique. Dolnick acknowledged the newspaper erred in running an episode of The Daily featuring Mills so soon after the Caliphate story.

The executives who signed the Public Radio Program Directors Association letter include top officials of such stations as KCRW and KPCC in Los Angeles, KUOW in Seattle, WAMU in Washington, D.C., and WBEZ in Chicago. Stations in Anchorage, Alaska; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; and Minneapolis also joined, among others.

The Washington Post's Erik Wemple first disclosed the station unrest over the matter.

Pressure from Barbaro

Barbaro interviewed Baquet in an episode of The Daily posted on Dec. 18 acknowledging that the newspaper had built the Caliphate series around a Canadian-Pakistani man who likely fabricated his claims of traveling to Syria to join ISIS. The Times presented him as an ISIS executioner and sought ways to justify and work around a number of contradictions in his account.

But even as Barbaro played a role in acknowledging the podcast's shortcomings to listeners, he privately pressured several journalists to pull back on their own public criticisms of Caliphate and The Times. They included The Post's Wemple, NPR Weekend Edition host Lulu Garcia-Navarro and this reporter. At least two others showed evidence Barbaro pressured them but declined to be named.

The Times added that interview to the Caliphate feed, though not to the feed of The Daily, as part of the newspaper's effort to acknowledge serious mistakes to its audiences. Baquet also gave a wide-ranging interview to NPR for broadcast that day.

As NPR later reported, however, Barbaro did not disclose to listeners that Caliphate had been largely created by the same team who built the The Daily. Nor did he mention that among those colleagues was his fiancée, Lisa Tobin, who had been executive producer of The Daily, and later took on the same role at Caliphate. She is now the executive producer for audio at the newspaper.

The signatories to the letter cited the failure to disclose those facts as a lack of transparency.

"How are we to trust that difficult questions would be asked, answers would be demanded, and the truth be sought?" the station executives asked. "This was a moment for transparency, that moment is now lost, and there should be accountability for this lapse in judgment."

In his response, Dolnick wrote that Times editors concluded that because Barbaro's conversation with Baquet was an attempt to offer an audio version of an editor's note in question-and-answer format, there was no need for such disclosures.

Ambitions for podcasts at The Times have grown since the success of The Daily, which runs on more than 200 public radio stations nationwide. It represents a new source of subscribers, revenues and awards, helping The Times build on its lucrative digital subscription model. Caliphate was seen as a new installation.

Barbaro and Mills did not respond to requests for comment as of Monday night.

The Times announced last month that the series' host, former terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi, was being reassigned and acknowledged more quietly that some of her previous print reporting was found to be deficient as well.

Complaints against Mills

Meanwhile, Mills, a creator and costar of Caliphate, has also been the subject of repeated complaints from women over alleged demeaning or dismissive behavior, starting at New York Public Radio, where he previously worked, and continuing at The Times.

Yet Mills co-hosted The Daily immediately after the Dec. 18 episode in which Barbaro interviewed Baquet. The letter from public radio stations cited the "optics" of his continued presence on the podcast at a time when social justice movements have hit public radio newsrooms, including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.

"The timing of that episode was a mistake and sent an unintended signal that undermined the gravity of the 'Caliphate' editors' note," Dolnick wrote Tuesday morning. "We should have changed plans."

He wrote that the paper takes the complaints against Mills "very seriously" and will take any "appropriate corrective action" after a thorough review.

Last week, WNYC's RadioLab, where Mills worked and was accused of inappropriate physical contact and behavior, posted a note of contrition. The show's staff said it wished it had done more to address his behavior toward women. His former boss at RadioLab, NPR producer Jamison York, expressed regret for failing to rein him in. Mills had apologized for his earlier behavior. In 2018, Tobin told New York magazine that Mills had been collegial since joining The Times and appeared to have learned from his past transgressions.

The newspaper would not confirm what role Mills currently plays at The Times.

Others invoked more recent episodes. On Twitter, Briana Breen, a Bay Area audio producer, alleged that Mills spoke disparagingly of Callimachi after a public appearance with her promoting the podcast. Some audio producers said he had written off female colleagues as possessing lesser talent than their male peers.

Disclosure: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik's wife is the co-founder of a podcast company that produced two limited-run podcast series for The Times. She had no involvement in, nor knowledge of, the workings of The Daily or Caliphate.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.