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 for 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 station chiefs 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.
The Daily reaches more than 11 million listeners as a program on public radio stations each week in addition to the more than 4 million who download it daily as a 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," the letter sent late Monday night read. "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."
In addition to Barbaro, the letter took issue with the continued presence of producer Andy Mills, a creator and co-star of Caliphate whose behavior has come under sustained critique.
The executives who signed the note include top officials of such stations as KCRW and KPCC in Los Angeles, KOUW in Seattle, WAMU in Washington, D.C., and WBEZ in Chicago. Stations in Anchorage, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas and Minneapolis also joined, among others.
The Washington Post's Erik Wemple first disclosed the station unrest over the matter.
"We would just like the New York Times to admit this was a failure on their part and to work on remedying the situation," said Abby Goldstein, president and executive director of the Public Radio Program Directors Association, which helped to coordinate the letter.
Barbaro interviewed Times executive editor Dean Baquet in a The Daily episode 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.
Pressure from Barbaro
But even as Barbaro played a role in acknowledging the podcast's shortcomings to listeners, he privately pressured several journalists in an effort to get them 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."
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, Mills and The Times did not respond to requests for comment as of Monday night. When the issues in this story were first raised by NPR, a Times spokeswoman said, "Our goal in producing this corrective audio episode was to make sure we provided our podcast listeners with the same level of transparency and accountability we gave print and online readers."
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 co-star of Caliphate, has also been the subject of repeated complaints from women for 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 he 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.
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 paper 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.