By Peter Klein
The latest scandal to hit United States news media involves Rukmini Callimachi, a dogged New York Times foreign correspondent who is the journalist behind the New York Times serial podcast Caliphate. The scandal also puts into the spotlight the little-known dynamic between reporters and “fixers” — local journalists who help foreign correspondents with reporting, finding sources and translating interviews.
Caliphate examined the rise of the Islamic State terror movement, and when it premiered two years ago, it attracted widespread listenership, earned critical acclaim and was honoured with some of the industry’s top awards. As a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, Callimachi was praised for her “relentless on-the-ground and online reporting.”
But last month, the central character of the series was arrested in Canada under a false-terrorism code for allegedly spinning a tale about being a member of ISIS. According to the charge, Abu Huzayfah, whose real name is Shehroze Chaudhry, may never have even travelled to Syria, and the stories he told of murder and mayhem that gripped audiences were likely invented.
While there is no evidence Callimachi falsified any of her reporting, she appears to be guilty of what social scientists call “confirmation bias” — and what the rest of us might call “wishful thinking.”
Callimachi worked largely with local journalists who spoke the local languages. According to one former colleague, who asked to remain anonymous, she often blocked her fixers from interacting with her editors: instead she presented herself as the “hero of her reporting … queen of the beat.”
This attitude resonates with the findings of a global survey of foreign correspondents and fixers my colleague Shayna Plaut and I conducted. We found troubling signs of a power dynamic that puts fixers in subservient positions where they face more danger, receive less pay and often have little editorial agency over the resulting works of journalism.
Power dynamics of reporting: Survey
While Callimachi’s approach to storytelling seems modern — with her successful use of social media and her narrative style of writing that makes geopolitical issues resonate with audiences — her approach to reporting is decidedly old school.
Several colleagues of Callimachi from the Times used the term “neo-colonial” in describing her approach to dealing with fixers, referring to exerting her privilege as the outsider and treating local colleagues as support staff.
Callimachi hired Derek Henry Flood, a freelance journalist based in Syria, to visit the markets of a town in the country’s north and seek evidence of Abu Huzayfah’s involvement with terrorism.
When Flood pointed out to Callimachi that ISIS had been forced from that region two years earlier, she disregarded his warnings and sent him on the potentially dangerous assignment anyway. “She only wanted things that very narrowly supported this kid in Canada [and his] wild stories,” Flood said in a recent New York Times interview.
In our survey of more than 450 journalists from 71 countries — the largest study of fixers ever undertaken — we found similar disconnects between correspondents and fixers over their respective roles and responsibilities.
While 80 per cent of fixers said they had challenged the editorial focus of their partner correspondent, only 44 per cent of journalists recalled being questioned by their fixers.
Similarly, only half the journalists surveyed admitted to being corrected by a fixer. But fixers said they correct correspondents 80 per cent of the time.
Politics of reporting
In reviewing Callimachi’s work — and in discussions with several of her colleagues — I saw evidence of a reporter who often came to her assignments with a pre-conceived idea of a good story. She encouraged local journalists working for her to bend to her vision of that story.
Shortly after joining the Times, Callimachi worked with Karam Shoumali, a Syrian journalist at the paper’s Istanbul bureau. They reported on a story about ISIS hostages and a man named Louai Abo Aljoud, who told the reporters that he was held by ISIS and “made eye contact with the American hostages being held by the Islamic State militant group” at a prison in Aleppo. If true, this would have been an important witness to an important moment, but Shoumali raised concerns about the source’s credibility.
As he was translating during the interview, Shoumali said certain statements did not line up with other facts. But Callimachi shot back, asking him to simply translate. Shoumali reportedly tried again to warn Callimachi about the source’s credibility. Instead of heeding the warning, she focused on connecting with the photo desk to get a picture of the main character for her story. The piece ran with a prominent photo on the front page of the paper.
Several of Callimachi’s other peers also raised concerns about her reporting. Chris Chivers, a long-time war correspondent, told the foreign editor that Callimachi’s approach to covering ISIS was sensational and inaccurate. According to Ben Smith’s Times story, Chivers told another editor that allowing this behaviour to continue would “burn this place down.”
Both the bureau chiefs in Baghdad and Beirut at the time also questioned Callimachi’s reporting and professionalism, but were overruled by senior editors.
Getting bylines for ‘fixers’
The words of a experienced fixer in Brazil, whom we interviewed for our survey, captures a common sentiment about the relationship between fixers and western journalists:
“[Reporters] come with a very preconceived idea of things and what they need … they have the idea, and it’s my role to try to get what they need.”
Another experienced local journalist with one of the American news networks noted the neo-colonial nature of “fixing” for western media:
“Unfortunately [the foreign correspondents] still look at us as ‘brown’ people with funny accents, and though I have reported and done some of the most important and daring stories for [the network], it is a struggle to get a producer credit. Meanwhile, white kids — years my junior — get their names up [in the credits].”
More than three-quarters of the fixers in our survey said they would like to have public credit for their work, but rarely receive it. A comprehensive review of Callimachi’s output through her six years with the New York Times shows she rarely shared her bylines with local reporters. Many other senior foreign correspondents at the paper routinely do share bylines with people who had previously been relegated to an “Additional reporting by …” credit.
Because the Times has an ongoing investigation into Callimachi’s reporting, she was prohibited from speaking on the record to The Conversation.
Canadian federal authorities, in the meantime, are pursuing her source, Shehroze Chaudhry, under a little-used law that criminalizes terrorist hoaxes. While perpetrating hoaxes in journalism is not punishable by law, it is the kind of crime that ends careers.
This is an updated version of a story originally published on Oct. 15, 2020. It clarifies that Callimachi rarely shared bylines with local reporters. The original article also included a story about Karam Shoumali when he was at the ‘Times’ Bagdad bureau. Actually, he was with the Istanbul bureau at the time.