By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
Regrets, they’ve had a few.
They occupy the highest rungs of journalism leadership, the executive editors of the New York Times. The newspaper’s footprint on American journalism is so big, changes in its leadership is news.
As when the Times announced recently that, after an eight-year stint, Dean Baquet will step down as executive editor, succeeded by Managing Editor Joseph F. Kahn. Photos of the smiling men accompany such moments, along with assurances about the incoming editor’s leadership abilities.
Under Baquet’s leadership, the Times took 18 Pulitzer Prizes, one of journalism’s highest accolades. Not mentioned, though, is the Pulitzer Prize entry that the Times submitted, but withdrew upon discovering it was seriously flawed even though it already was named a finalist in the international reporting category for 2019. The Pulitzer Prize Board stripped the Times of its finalist status four days later.
Learning from failure
Failure often is cited as an opportunity to learn, and the failed Pulitzer entry is one of those occasions.
The discredited Times entry was called “Caliphate,” a 12-part audio documentary about the Islamic State, and included a related report, “The ISIS Files,” by the podcast’s co-host Rukmini Callimachi. The Times started examining the podcast after one of its main subjects, Shehroze Chaudhry, a Canadian who said he took part in atrocities, including two killings in Syria, was arrested by Canadian authorities who charged him with a terrorism hoax.
After a two-month review, the Times decided “Caliphate” did not meet the standards for Times journalism and accuracy. This is especially meaningful, coming from a newspaper that cannot claim a shortage of staff or resources, as do many newspapers across the country stricken by an economic tailspin. With more than 1,700 journalists, the New York Times is a media giant.
Baquet said the blame falls on newsroom leaders, including himself. These reportedly are some of the smartest people in the business.
“When The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom,” he said in a podcast interview posted by the Times. “We did not do that in this case. And I think that I or somebody else should have provided that same kind of scrutiny, because it was a big, ambitious piece of journalism. And I did not provide that kind of scrutiny, nor did my top deputies with deep experience in examining investigative reporting.”
A Times editor’s note on the “Caliphate” podcast cited two main problems: The Times’s failure to assign an editor well versed in terrorism to keep a close watch on the series, and the “Caliphate” team’s lack of skepticism and rigor in its reporting on Chaudhry.
In effect, the Times podcast reporters placed too much trust in one man’s unverified account of events, a pitfall that snared even the Times, when they should have known better. Experienced journalists recognize the dangers of depending on one source for a big story, and they know the dangers of really, really wanting the story that source is telling them to be true. It is a siren song, deceptively alluring, that causes them to crash upon the rocks of credibility.
In a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview, Chaudhry was asked why he told the Times he had participated in atrocities. “I was being childish,” he replied. “I was describing what I saw and, basically, I was close enough to think it was me.”
Baquet believes no other executive editor has admitted to owning up to as many mistakes as he has. With 20/20 hindsight, he explains how rigorous examination of a complicated story should work.
Chewing, pro and con
“A really good piece of journalism not only chews on the stuff that supports the story — it chews on the stuff that refutes the story,” he said in a podcast. “And in the end, good journalism comes from some sort of internal debate over whether or not the stuff that supports the story is more powerful than the stuff that refutes the story. And to the signs that maybe our story wasn’t as strong as we thought it was.”
Signs, signals, hunches. They are part of news-making judgment. Sometimes a lot of time passes before the picture is clear, including worthiness of the 133 Pulitzer Prizes the Times has won, including the first awarded in 1918. In recent years, the Times has won one or more Pulitzers almost every year, a testament to its size and influence with the Pulitzer Prize Board. No other news organization has reaped so many Pulitzer Prizes.
The Times acted rather swiftly to decline a Pulitzer Prize for “Caliphate.” But it steadfastly refuses to return a highly controversial Pulitzer awarded 90 years ago that even Bill Keller, a Times executive editor from 2003 to 2011, considers without merit.
The 1932 Pulitzer
That is the 1932 Pulitzer awarded to New York Times reporter Walter Duranty for a glowing series of dispatches highly favorable to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s communist dictator who ordered confiscation of food and grain from peasant families under a five-year “collectivization” plan. Duranty neglected to mention the plan led to the starvation deaths of millions of Ukranians and more than a million Russians in 1932-33, according to estimates. Stalin used collectivization to crush nationalist sentiments in Ukraine and pay for his efforts to industrialize the Soviet Union, while arresting, exiling or killing dissidents.
Getting rare interviews with Stalin, Duranty was unwavering in his defense of the Russian leader and his policies, even as the famine unfolded. A front-page Times story said: “The excellent harvest about to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” Privately, Duranty reportedly told a British diplomat that as many as 10 million people might have died from lack of food in a single year. Duranty died in 1957.
Pulitzer board declines
The New York Times began to assess Duranty’s work in 1986 and 1990. In 2003, public pressure led the Times and the Pulitzer Board to review his work and the prize. The board found no “clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception” and decided against withdrawing the award. Then-Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said stripping Duranty’s award would be like airbrushing history. The Pulitzer Board again in 2021 declined to withdraw the award.
In a 2022 interview on National Public Radio with David Folkenflik, former executive editor Keller added his voice to the cause. Keller is a 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting on the Soviet Union.
Keller looks back with some regret that he did not push harder for the award to be returned, he told NPR. He says the Pulitzer board should rescind it.
“I mean, I can articulate a case for not revoking the prize and saying this is a teachable moment,” Keller said. “Hold the prize out there, but surround it with the shame it deserves. But I thought the Pulitzer board’s reasoning in not doing away with the prize was pretty lame. A Pulitzer Prize is not just an accolade for an isolated piece of work. It at least implies an accolade for the reporter’s performance, and Duranty’s performance was shameful.”
Regrets? They had a few. But not too few to mention.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.