This is embarrassing, but I’m ready to admit it: despite avowing it’s importance to our world, I have never been able to commit to consistently following longform journalism covering a story as it unfolds. Newspapers are wonderful, and again, though I don’t subscribe to any paper, I love the feeling of holding a compendium of the previous day’s events in my hand. There are many factors that contribute to my news consuming habits. For starters, there is an abundance of high quality content that does not sit behind a paywall that I can access online. I’m an incredibly slow reader, which all but guarantees I can’t keep pace with the publishing schedules of the countless founts of journalistic rigor. Finally, I lack a source of accountability that might demand my participation; a passing familiarity with the day’s headlines is the only thing that I really need to get me through the pleasantries of small talk with co-workers. But more than anything else, it’s that I don’t have a consistent routine carved out to sit down and read through the news - let alone delve into a piece of writing that could take me upwards of an hour to parse. The New York Times is steadily building out a solution for wayward consumers like myself, and their new podcast Caliphate is another thread in the tapestry.
Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi helms the new show, which focuses on reporting the evolution of the Islamic State. We begin with a bit of a broader reflection from Callimachi on her methodology, before the episodes start to give way to a central interviewee that soon becomes the focal point. The man, a Canadian named Abu Huzayfah, purports to be a former ISIS member and proceeds to tell his story. There is a lot of tape in the earlier episodes that, while surely edited for time and clarity, largely allows the man to give his versions of events that appear to go unchecked and unchallenged by the host. But of course, this is coming from the prestigious Gray Lady, the paper of record, and if you thought she was going to air the unsolicited tale of a confessed terrorist without so much as a nod to fact checking? Well, look no further than episode 6, a 43 minute fine-tooth-comb that completely calls into question the veracity of nearly everything from episodes 2 through 5. This does allow a grounded sense of truth to get the journalistic comeuppance it deserves, but it’d be a disservice to write-off the confession-style story Huzayfah lays out. It is incredibly gripping, and is a brilliant device to hook listeners with salacious details before coming in for a second pass with a team of researchers.
Listeners would be forgiven for stopping after episode 6 with the assumption that this is just the Times’ effort at capturing another piece of the seemingly endless real estate of true-crime podcasting. It does seem like the question of subjective reality, the guilty/innocent dichotomy, has steered us away from the much larger and even more complicated world of ISIS’s grip on power, and that is a market much more sorely in need of coverage in the podcast world. Episode 7 recenters the show, bringing us to the ground in Mosul, and the focus temporarily shifts away from Huzayfah. This begs the question, just how long will Caliphate last? When some googling didn’t reveal an answer, I took to Twitter and asked:
“@rcallimachi your work on Caliphate has been outstanding! I know episode 7 is set to drop on May 31, but do you have any idea how many episodes the series will be in total? Or is the story still evolving too much to pin that down at the moment?” To which she responded: ***likes my tweet***. I took this as a sort of “Awww, I like how you think we’ve got an episode count in mind. Caliphate is turning the idea of podcasting and longform journalism on it’s head, son!” But really, I see this show mirroring Embedded, Serial, and becoming its own ongoing thing, publishing a burst of stories on a topic and then continuing to periodically issue updates and follow new leads.
The show’s potential to continue in perpetuity is as much due to the sprawlingly unresolved nature of the subject matter as it is to the tone of the show. From the start Callimachi conveys an accessibility that may win over listeners who are looking for more than the (necessary, excellent) daily rundowns from Up First or the (meditative, groundbreaking) scattershot of The Daily as it delivers a longer meditation on a de rigeur story. Caliphate falls into a sweet spot between Michael Barbaro’s earnest solemnity on The Daily and the jocular critical lens we get from Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham on Still Processing, undoubtedly taking a highly professional tack and injecting it with levity that doesn’t stray into editorializing. Oh, and did I mention the lack of ads? This is a strength of producing under the masthead of the Times, and I grant that not all - nay, basically no one - has the privilege to do this. But we need to figure out a way for funding models for serious journalistic endeavors to rid themselves of capitalistic distraction.
Perhaps the thing I’m most ashamed of in my dearth of media engagement is my disinterest in conflicts abroad. In high school I distinctly remember a conversation where I complained about all the news about the war in Afghanistan. Not the way it was being reported, not the integrity of the pros delivering the news, but the mere fact that it existed and that it was boring. This is appalling - of course I should care about the suffering of others. To paraphrase a recent conversation with a friend, the least I can do as a privileged American is to inform myself of the tragedy that rips through so many lives at home and around the world. With Caliphate, the New York Times has met me on the way there. This podcast is shaping up to be the apex of content that is as unapologetically entertaining as it is objectively informative.