She’s a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer; She’s won the Peabody Award in 2018 for the very series that’s now under the scanner – Rukmini Callimachi has just walked into a controversy that on-lookers in the field of journalism were perhaps hawking for. Feeding right into the mouths of the envious, the Abu Huzayfah al-Kanadi character just got deconstructed. The star reporter turned attention her way for all the wrong reasons now, one may say. After all, journalism is risky – not just because you’d need to reach the murky depths of the globe for ground-breaking stories, but also for the balancing act between truth and falsities. With the new trouble in place, it’s the integrity of journalism that gets taunted and tested.
‘Caliphate’ brought the already established journalist in Callimachi to renewed light – she had been an expert in reporting on events in West Africa, through her earlier designation with Associated Press. The New York Times signed her up for a new feature and before anybody knew it, the series took off and therefore, Callimachi emerged as a reliable voice for all news on the ISIS or on a wider scale, on terror. Every time there was a disaster that possibly had ties with the ISIS, you would just rush on to see what Callimachi had commented on it – such was the reputation that she built for herself and her reports. She had access to confidential documents and more that further attested to what everybody knew or surmised about the world of terror. It was like getting a clearer insight, beyond mere assumptions. The very gigantism that her journalistic pursuit had instituted is the cause of concern today. If something deemed as reliable as Callimachi’s reports held a hint of hyperbolized information, what can really be left of the news of ‘sensation’ for us to trust and consume? That the doubts of internal editors did not materialize into something that fuelled a close review of the episode throws light on a collective failure as well.
The risky business of weighing views over data could be self-destructive, so shows the NYTimes incident. Fear might always sell, proving the age-old formula followed by even the greats in cinema, but in journalism, there’s the added criterion of things having to be real and not just a simulation of what one thinks ‘ought’ to be real. When al-Kanadi or Shehroze Chaudhury’s revelation of having performed two executions got featured, there weren’t many doubts about the actuality – it’s the ISIS, it’s a terrorist, what could be wrong in what he’s stated? Sure, there wouldn’t be any word of denial or acceptance from the ISIS, but by allowing even a small exaggeration, one might end up permitting a new standard all at once – a little churning and addition of spice to the mix could be viewed as no grave issue. This normalization of fear-mongering sensationalized news is precisely what one needs to be wary of. There were also several opinions raised against Callimachi’s ‘villainization’ of the Arab world and their religion.
The New York Times has launched an independent investigation into the incident and it still is quite a premature stage to be making closed judgements. Nevertheless, the conversation that it has sparked up on the integrity of journalism and how it must be checked is welcome. With new media opening up, making its access wide and easy, and relying a lot more on viewership and the race between moguls, there might be tendencies to digress – that’s not a desirable course for one of democracy’s vital pillars to traverse through. Surely, the entity that helps check politics and administration cannot itself be determined to go amok.
As a side note, it might also do well if we ruminate over why Chaudhury’s arrest was driven by a hoax law and why he’s been taken in, not for his involvement with a terror outfit, but for spinning up lies. This story is an inoculum for multiple thoughts.