Michael Moore and the Atlantic Wire vs. BuzzFeed and an Anonymous Source

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Feb. 27 2013 12:58 PM

Michael Moore and the Atlantic Wire vs. BuzzFeed and an Anonymous Source

Director Emad Burnat
Director Emad Burnat

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

This may be a little inside baseball for those of you who don't spend all day on the Internet, but it's been dominating our Twitter feed of late, so we thought we'd explain.

There's currently something of a spat unfolding between Michael Moore and BuzzFeed. The whole thing began when Emad Burnat, an Oscar-nominated Palestinian filmmaker, was detained by customs at Los Angeles International Airport on his way to the awards ceremony last week. Moore used his Twitter account to draw attention to Burnat's apparent plight. BuzzFeed then followed with its own story questioning Moore's account of and involvement in Burnat's holdup in customs. And so the Internet feud began.

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It's actually become a three-way fight after Moore and Burnat spoke to the Atlantic Wire with their version of the story, which has varied little from the original story told on Moore's Twitter account as it unfolded. So far, the Atlantic Wire is definitely in Moore's corner on this one. The whole thing begins with Burnat's arrival at LAX with his 8-year-old child and his wife, who wears hijab:

Through his Twitter handle, Moore claims that officials told Burnat that he and his family didn't have proper documentation for entering the United States. Moore says Burnat contacted him after they threatened to send him "back to Palestine." He goes on to say that Academy lawyers got involved and Burnat was eventually allowed to leave the airport.

Moore, on Twitter, estimated that Burnat was detained for about an hour and a half. In his statement, Burnat indicates that he was held for at least 40 minutes.

Over at BuzzFeed, Tessa Stuart took issue with this narrative. Originally citing "sources" at LAX (the post has since been corrected to note that Stuart has just one source), Stuart quoted an anonymous airport worker who said the whole thing was just a "publicity stunt" for the film: 

When Burnat arrived at the Customs and Border Protection desk at LAX, the source said, he was asked to state the purpose of his visit; when he said he was here to attend the Oscars, he was asked to produce his ticket. When he wasn't able to produce that document on spot, the source continued, Burnat was taken to a secondary inspection area where he found the ticket, showed it Customs officers, and was immediately allowed to proceed to the baggage claim. This source insists the whole process took no longer than 25 minutes total, and was standard practice for anyone entering the country.

Stuart later backed up her version of events with the release of an LAX log (presumably from the same source) noting that Burnat was detained for just about 23 minutes. But as the Atlantic Wire noted, Moore doesn't think the log contains Burnat's entire interaction with customs. Based on his text records, Moore now estimates that Burnat was detained for an hour, slightly less time than his original on-the-fly estimate had claimed. BuzzFeed framed this in an "update" to their blog post as a validation on their reporting: 

Moore confirmed to The Atlantic Wire Tuesday that he had exaggerated the timeline. The piece, framed as a defense of Moore, also makes no attempt to establish that agents "could not believe" that Burnat was an acclaimed filmmaker.

Moore has since posted a response to BuzzFeed on his own site, which, in between predictable jabs at cat gifs, says this about BuzzFeed's charge against him and Burnat: "Why on earth would Emad stage a 'publicity stunt' last Tuesday? Emad was already nominated for an Oscar." 

Because no one else has spoken with BuzzFeed's source(s) (highlighting one of the problems with relying on the anonymous for controversial stories), it's impossible to say right now whether there's anything to their criticism of Moore's story. But it's clear that Moore, Burnat, and the Atlantic Wire see the story as part of an ongoing, well-documented process of racial and ethnic profiling by border security; while BuzzFeed seems weirdly cynical about the possibility that such a thing would happen at all.

Burnat's film—a documentary on Palestinian protests against the construction of a security fence in the West Bank—is bound to be read as political because of his Palestinian nationality, so it's not entirely surprising that his apparent treatment at the hands of U.S. customs would also become a source of debate. In any case, Burnat's own statement following the incident indicates that, of all the parties involved, he might be the one least infuriated by the whole thing:

Although this was an unpleasant experience, this is a daily occurrence for Palestinians, every single day, throughout the West Bank. There are more than 500 Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks, and other barriers to movement across our land, and not a single one of us has been spared the experience that my family and I experienced yesterday. Ours was a very minor example of what my people face every day.

So there you have it.

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