How BuzzFeed Turned Its Own Sloppy Journalism into Something to Celebrate

Over the past few days, BuzzFeed has turned the story of a Palestinian filmmaker detained by LAX customs officials on his way to the Oscars into something infinitely more petty: an all-out campaign to distract readers from their own shoddy reporting. 

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Over the past two days, BuzzFeed has turned the story of a Palestinian filmmaker detained by LAX customs officials on his way to the Oscars into something much more petty: a campaign to distract readers from their own shoddy reporting.

Last night, the Atlantic Wire published an article identifying several errors and gaps in two BuzzFeed articles which had claimed Michael Moore's account of the LAX incident on Twitter — in which Emad Burnat, his hijab-wearing wife, and 8-year-old child were stopped by customs — was a "publicity stunt." We based our report on on-the-record statements from Burnat and Moore. Tessa Stuart, the BuzzFeed reporter on the story, still has no one speaking with her on the record to contest Moore and Burnat's version of events. The best outside corroboration of their account in fact comes from BuzzFeed — a log book showing Burnat was detained by custom officials. But despite having her anonymous sources being proven wrong on several factual details, BuzzFeed is still standing by these anonymous sources' sweeping generalizations as credible fact.

And despite this one-sided scoop fizzling, BuzzFeeders, including editor-in-chief Ben Smith, spent the afternoon high-fiving each other on Twitter, still pushing the idea that they caught Michael Moore in a lie. Smith tweeted out a link to a lengthy defense of Stuart's work written by Stuart's friend and former editor (a disclsosure that comes in the blog post's 12th paragraph) titled, "Michael Moore Caught Exaggerating LAX Oscars Detainment -- What Else Is New?" BuzzFeed's political reporter Andrew Kaczynski added "Surprise surprise," and their West Coast correspondent Kate Aurthur tweeted, "How BIZARRE that the @laweekly has a problem with Michael Moore lying! I wish other media outlets did."

BuzzFeed has made a name for itself over the last year for adding substantive reporting to its usual cat and corgi photo fare, so it's strange to see the organization take a stand for truth on such a flimsy story.

The tactic they've employed is borrowed from the world of political consultants: if confronted with an error, just change the subject. And you can see that in how Stuart's stories have been edited and re-edited since their initial premise started crumbling. Stuart's first article was originally titled, "Was Michael Moore's Dramatic Rescue of An Oscar-Nominated Director Just A Publicity Stunt?" and claimed multiple anonymous sources stating that Moore's account of the Burnat detention was "baloney" and "the whole thing was an elaborate publicity stunt for the film." When it turned out that Stuart had just one sole anonymous source, the headline was dialed back to "Los Angeles Airport Source Disputes Michael Moore 'Rescue' Account" and a correction was appended. It was also edited to address the lone source's claim that once Burnat produced an Oscar ticket he was whisked through customs: as Moore pointed out, the Academy Awards hadn't issued paper tickets to anyone on the date in question.

For Stuart's second story the "source" had multiplied to "five officials." The only new evidence these anonymous officials gave Stuart actually backed up Burnat's account: handwritten logs that purportedly showed that for 23 minutes Burnat was detained by customs for "secondary inspection." These logs do not say anything about what happened before or after that 23 minutes; Moore told us the entire episode lasted "a little bit over an hour." He checked his phone and found that 40 minutes elapsed between the first panicked word from Burnat and the final message saying he'd been released. Even Stuart conceded "there is nothing in the log to contradict Burnat's account." But after Moore spoke with us, BuzzFeed declared victory in an update, introducing the entirely new charge that Moore "had exaggerated the timeline" by focusing on a tweet in which Moore originally pegged the whole affair at an hour and a half compared to the 40 minutes he told us. Did you catch that sleight of hand? In 48 hours, BuzzFeed has gone from reporting that Burnat's ordeal was entirely fabricated to admitting the ordeal occurred but didn't last quite as long as Moore claimed. That's the basis of their claim to speak for the truth.

I stand by everything I wrote and figured that would have been it, except that this afternoon, long after the "conversation" had subsided, L.A. Weekly's Sarah Fenske felt the need to weigh in and somehow label me the bad journalist in this debacle: "Reporter David Wagner closes his story with a quote that basically suggests none of the facts matter." Much lower in her piece, Fenske writes, "Stuart spent much of 2012 as an editorial fellow at L.A. Weekly, and I was her editor," but then insists, "For the record, Stuart did not suggest I write about any of this." However, what she's saying sounds eerily similar to what BuzzFeeders had been saying. Smith has been aggressively defending Stuart's posts on Twitter, while misreading (willfully or not) Stuart's reporting and ours to bolster his arguments. All of this misdirects attention toward cloudy timeline details and away from the larger issue: BuzzFeed can't substantiate their original allegation that Moore made the whole thing up for publicity.

Our previous report speaks for itself, but it seems that certain people need clarification on what we know, what we don't, and what hasn't been answered yet.

What we know

  • We know that Burnat's plane landed in Los Angeles at 4:59 p.m.
  • We know that he, his wife, and his son were detained by customs officials for some period of time before being allowed to enter the country.
  • We know that BuzzFeed's sources were wrong about Burnat's possession of an Oscars ceremony ticket. 
  • We know that both Moore and Burnat agree that the detainment exceeded 23 minutes. 

What we don't know

  • We don't know precisely, down to the minute, how long Burnat was detained. No one has firm numbers to counter Moore's estimate that the whole incident took "a little bit over an hour." Moore says that his texting and email history shows 40 minutes elapsing between the time Burnat first contacted him (after, he says, the filmmaker and his family were already some ways into the detainment proceedings) and when he informed Moore that he'd made it through customs.
  • We don't know what happened before or after the 23 minutes in the log cited by BuzzFeed. It only covers the time Burnat spent in "secondary" inspection, meaning there's no timestamp indicating, for example, how long he spent in primary inspection.

What we're being asked to accept on blind faith

  • The broad claims of an anonymous BuzzFeed source who's made factual errors.

There is no reason to believe BuzzFeed's original premise that the whole thing was a publicity stunt. And in his "Final Word on Buzzfeed and Emad Burnat's Detention at LAX," Moore asks what he and Burnat stood to gain from such a stunt. "Emad was already nominated for an Oscar," he writes. "The theatrical release of 5 Broken Cameras was over. The voting for Best Documentary had closed ... Palestinian documentaries don't post amazing DVD sales even with the best publicity stunts on earth." What factual evidence can BuzzFeed produce that confirms Moore and Burnat conspired to forward a customs detention hoax in the hopes of drumming up more attention for themselves and their work?

BuzzFeed concocted l'affaire Moore out of thin reporting to back a story that Moore and Burnat faked a customs incident for crass publicity purposes. Perhaps the site was speaking from experience.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.