Inside the Caliphate Debacle, and Exactly Who Is Allowed to Fail

Inside the Caliphate Debacle, and Exactly Who Is Allowed to Fail

One morning in late December, the documentarian and producer Kelsey Padgett turned on the New York Times’ The Daily, a podcast she listens to nearly every day. It had been less than a week since the Times had retracted-but-not-quite-retracted its award-winning Caliphate podcast, following an investigation into a deceptive source, and Padgett was stunned, she says, to hear one of the show’s most visible producers, her former colleague Andy Mills, hosting “a fun story” that day.

“My wife was enraged,” says Padgett. “She said, ‘He’s going to get away with it again.”

Nearly three years earlier, Padgett had been a source for a New York Magazine story about how WNYC was handling accusations of bullying and misogyny, some of it involving Mills. As the story reported, an H.R. investigation into the producer’s behavior was marked resolved with little fanfare, after he signed a statement of reprimand and performed an hour of behavioral training. The long-term consequences of what former colleagues and acquaintances have described as a pattern of sexism and workplace misconduct were muted. Mills apologized in print and moved on to the Times—where his female boss vouched for his ability to work “with and for women inside an audio department that is predominantly female”—and came to work on the paper’s flagship investigative podcast, where his career thrived. When the project exploded spectacularly in late 2020, Mills—who had originally pitched the podcast and appeared regularly on the show—emerged relatively unscathed, while the reporter Rukmini Callimachi publicly apologized and was reassigned from her beat.

“Him not being accountable in any way for the failures of Caliphate while his female reporting counterpart takes all the public scrutiny says a lot,” says Padgett.

Shortly after hearing the Daily episode, Padgett became one of the first women in audio to tweet about Mills’s behavior in the workplace and at industry events. This behavior, allegedly ranging from publicly disparaging female colleagues to making unwelcome advances, was apparently well known in a segment of the industry and discussed quietly for years, but hadn’t impacted his trajectory much at all. But as Mills’s former colleagues began publicly airing pointed complaints, the sudden exposure of the whisper network reverberated.

On January 7th, Mills’s former employer, Radiolab, posted an apology on its website, citing “conversations about tolerance of bad behavior in our industry and in particular a person who worked on our show five years ago, Andy Mills.” A week later, as NPR reported, a coalition of 20 influential public radio stations sent a letter calling Daily host Michael Barbaro’s “credibility into question,” criticizing his fumbling of the Caliphate retraction and, among other things, raising questions about Mills’s continued prominence at the operation. The Washington Post’s media columnist reports these “concerns” have reached “the upper levels of the Times,” according to one unnamed source. Over the last month, at least four public stations have dropped Barbaro’s show in protest. Publicly, the paper has remained politely contrite.

The Times’ choice not to equally discipline Mills is part of a broader narrative about cronyism and the somewhat complicated circumstances under which journalists atone for shoddy work. Since the Times apologized for featuring a fabulist as a central character in its podcast, Barbaro’s behavior has come under particular scrutiny. But for the women who tweeted about Mills and engaged in the agonizing private conversations about their industry that followed, this singular incident mirrors a broader unwillingness to challenge behavior that might not appear egregious to some male managers but still pushed women out of the field and left those that remained to experience “death by a thousand cuts.”

Karen Duffin, a longtime industry fixture and the current co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, has seen this dynamic replicated for years. She refers to the Caliphate situation as “a bubble that was waiting to burst.” But there’s a pressing question for her field at large, she says, about whose behavior goes unchecked. “What is it in the management process that allows them to say: We can’t let this guy go, but we can let all of these women suffer?” she asks. It’s a case study with implications beyond Mills and the Times: Years after powerful men toppled and subtler brands of misconduct explored, questions remain about who is insulated from failure and who is primed to succeed.

Weeks after critiques first surfaced, the Caliphate situation is complicated to the point of being a meme, the collision of a handful of ongoing themes in journalism. It’s both a story about how institutions apologize for their failures and how the lucrative arena of audio documentary is treated by more print-centric executives. With the vocal opposition to Mills’s role at the paper, it’s become a story about the mistakes men are permitted to make, too.

Late last year, the paper found itself in some trouble when a crucial source—and arguably the main character—of its flagship investigative podcast Caliphate was charged by Canadian officials with fabricating his story about traveling to Syria and joining ISIS. The podcast, hosted by star terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi but originally pitched by Andy Mills, relied heavily on the source’s account, even if the hosts occasionally cast doubt on his version of events. In response to the charges, a group of Times editors launched an investigation; by mid-December, the paper of record had issued a series of apologies and editor’s notes that executive editor Dean Baquet described as a “retraction” of some, but not all, parts of the project. Nonetheless, the Pulitzer board removed Caliphate from its list of 2019 finalists; the Times returned its Peabody award.

It’s reasonable to ask how many chances a person can expect, and how institutions like the Times are doing that math

The podcast is still live, albeit with an editor’s note admitting the episodes featuring the fabulist “did not meet our standards for accuracy.” In an hour-long interview with NPR’s David Folkenflik, Baquet implied the audio format was partially to blame, with top editors too dazzled or confused by the glossy narrative package of a podcast to apply more rigorous standards. As a result of the fallout, Callimachi was reassigned from the terrorism beat and posted a lengthy apology on Twitter. Mills, who had traveled with Callimachi to Iraq and gave the acceptance speech for the now-returned Peabody award, was back to hosting the paper’s most popular podcast not long after. (In its letter to the concerned public radio executives, the Times noted the Daily episode had been pre-taped and the timing was a “mistake.”)

Shortly before Christmas, another NPR report highlighted a series of bizarre choices in the paper’s tepid almost-retraction: As Folkenflik noted, the Times chose to correct the audio record about Caliphate during a recent half-hour special episode of the podcast in which Michael Barbaro, the mustachioed figurehead of the paper’s daily podcast operation, interviewed Baquet about where the Times went wrong—a bid at transparency complicated by Barbaro’s own conflicting interests. According to Folkenflik, Barbaro had spent that week messaging reporters asking them to temper their Caliphate criticism, in one instance warning NPR host and former Middle East correspondent Lulu Garcia-Navarro that she might hurt Times staffers’ feelings. The host’s role as an objective voice was muddled, too, by the fact that Barbaro is engaged to Caliphate’s executive producer, having divorced his husband and started dating his colleague much to Page Six’s delight circa 2018.

Last week, the Times’ assistant managing editor, Sam Dolnick, sent a letter to the stations who’d expressed concern about how Caliphate had been handled: “We believe we’ve handled what was a significant journalistic lapse with accountability,” he wrote, adding that “Michael deeply regrets” messaging other journalists and that any allegations of misconduct about Andy Mills would be reviewed. The episode of the Daily Mills hosted sent an “unintended signal,” given its timing, the letter said, and Times leadership had asked Barbaro to participate in the interview with Baquet as an “editor’s note,” not an “accountability interview.” Over the weekend, Barbaro issued an apology of his own on Twitter. In other words, the Times regretted the optics.

While Barbaro and the Times focused on the Daily host’s interactions with other journalists, the paper’s ostensibly symbolic error provoked something in the women who had interacted with Andy Mills over the years, perhaps because the symbolism was a little too sharp.

Frustrations over the types of complaints that never seemed to land—casual sexism, favoritism, a lack of public accountability— spilled over

From the week the Daily episode in question aired former colleagues and acquaintances of Mills’s recounted anecdotes about being told they were too pretty for their pitches to be taken seriously or watching Mills take credit for female colleague’s ideas, reposting the New York Magazine story describing inappropriate behavior. In aggregate, the bizarre series of corrections and the previous reporting of Mills’s workplace misconduct and his immediate prominence on the Daily became cause for unified opposition. Frustrations over the types of complaints that never seemed to land—casual sexism, favoritism, a lack of public accountability— spilled over.

“I could safely say I’ve heard 10 complaints from 10 different women,” about Mills, says Stephanie Foo, a producer and former employee of This American Life who described a moment when Mills, in front of a group of colleagues, told her Radiolab didn’t hire women because they couldn’t use ProTools. (According to Foo, when Mills was later admonished by his bosses, he called her up to complain, though she hadn’t reported the incident herself.) Padgett recounted Mills repeatedly telling colleagues she’d only been hired because of her gender and pouring part of a beer on her head at an after-work event. “I’m sick of seeing people, women mainly, put down and traumatized by this dude,” she says. Briana Breen, a freelance audio producer, wrote about a dinner with members of the Caliphate team during which Mills, out of earshot from his colleagues, took credit for the project and “and called Rukmini every offensive name possible.”

“I think it’s been a situation where people felt really helpless,” says Duffin. “Like they’ve watched this continue and none of the people in power have done anything about it.”

Padgett, who was anonymously quoted in the New York Magazine article, says she was terrified after speaking to the outlet—both she and Foo expressed concern that confronting issues in the workplace might brand a person as difficult to work with. But as Padgett notes, the story’s reporting about Mills didn’t appear to “make much of a splash.” A few years later, these frustrations are being reanimated as women who’ve say they’ve experienced misogyny from the producer see a counter-intuitive message in how the Times has handled Caliphate: That the people who make audio journalism happen aren’t held to as high a standard as other reporters, and that when certain people make mistakes, they won’t be held to meaningful account.

One common complaint is that the Caliphate debacle and the treatment of female colleagues—even in the past tense—aren’t separate categories of misconduct at all, to be assessed as different spheres of a person’s professional identity. It isn’t necessarily that people who have belittled women or bungled an editorial process should be blacklisted forever: Just that a pattern of failure deserves note, and probably consequences. The fact that both incidents haven’t appeared to impact the producer’s career trajectory at all invite questions about who institutions like the Times are inclined to want to see succeed—and who might suffer as a result. Glenn Thrush, after all, has been quietly put back on the national affairs beat after being reassigned based on much more aggressively-covered misconduct at a previous job. Last week, a freelancer suggested she’d been fired after conservatives criticized a rather innocuous pro-Biden tweet. It’s reasonable to ask how many chances a person can expect, and how institutions like the Times are doing that math.

A spokesperson for the Times declined to specify how it’s responding to the allegations about Mills aired on Twitter and elsewhere: “We thoroughly review all complaints received, and will take any appropriate correction action,” a representative wrote, noting that the paper was bringing additional editors and fact-checkers to its audio department. “We are evaluating the next assignments for producers and reporters of Caliphate and other ways to provide more support for investigative audio journalism.”

“I think this death by a thousand cuts stuff causes in aggregate so much pain,” says Duffin. “But it’s the hardest to address.”

A previous version of this story mistakenly described a beer Andy Mills poured on a colleague’s head as “full.” The colleague recalls the beer as being more like one-third full. Jezebel regrets the error.

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