First Michael Moore came out swinging on Twitter. Clueless customs officials at LAX had detained an Academy Award-nominated Palestinian filmmaker, he claimed. They “couldn't understand how a Palestinian could be an Oscar nominee.” Even producing an “Oscar invite” wasn't good enough. The filmmaker, Emad Burnat, had to call Moore. And Moore had to call lawyers.
Finally, Moore tweeted, “After 1.5 hrs, they decided to release him & his family & told him he could stay in L.A. for the week & go to the Oscars. Welcome to America.” Such drama!
But now we know the truth: Burnat was detained for all of 23 minutes. As anyone who's ever traveled internationally can tell you, that's hardly cause for concern.
But here's what really galls.
It's the young Buzzfeed reporter who had the audacity to question Moore's account who's been called out as a liar — not Moore. Even as the facts have shown Moore to be, at worst, a shameless publicity hound or, at best, a careless exaggerator, it's Buzzfeed that everyone is shaming.
Even the Atlantic, whose detail-rich reporting has done much to confirm Buzzfeed's account, seems intent on taking Moore's side, calling Buzzfeed's story “deeply flawed” and letting Moore have the final say. Reporter David Wagner closes his story with a quote that basically suggests none of the facts matter. Quoth Moore, “It doesn't really matter if it took 5 minutes, or 23 minutes, or 23 hours. … The main issue here — and Buzzfeed is trying to cloud it because they got caught saying some things that aren't true — is why was he detained at all?”
Really? We don't want Customs questioning anyone at all? International travelers, even those from countries that have shown clear distaste for our foreign policy, should be able to come and go as they please, no questions asked? Twenty-three minutes — a time in which the traveler is permitted to call friends stateside, and presumably get lawyers involved if need be — is somehow unforgivable?
Here are the facts. Moore kicked off the conversation last week by tweeting about Burnat's treatment at LAX — saying he'd been detained, his Oscar invite did no good, and the ordeal lasted “1.5 hours.” With 1.4 million Twitter followers, his allegations generated serious media interest.
And that's when Buzzfeed got involved. The website, which has recently opened an L.A. bureau, ran a story by Tessa Stuart quoting an unnamed TSA source and questioning Moore's dramatic account.
Monday morning, though, a source working at LAX familiar with the situation and speaking on the condition of anonymity, offered a very different account of events.
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 the spot, the source continued, Burnat was taken to a secondary inspection area where he found the ticket, showed it to 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.
“He was not racially profiled,” the source said. “It is being used as a political stunt, and a publicity stunt for the movie.”
Stuart apparently attempted to reach Moore, but instead of responding, he began calling her out over Twitter. When she responded that she'd been trying to get his side of the story (“I've called and emailed the director, called 2 of your agents, emailed & tweeted to you for comment”), he instead went on a Twitter tirade:
At some point, Buzzfeed had to correct a small portion of Stuart's story — there was apparently a reference to “sources” when the original story relied on one source. (And, this might be the time to disclose some history: Stuart spent much of 2012 as an editorial fellow at L.A. Weekly, and I was her editor — which is one reason I became interested in this story in the last 48 hours. For the record, Stuart did not suggest I write about any of this — I saw it unfold on Twitter just like any obsessive social media user.)
But as time went on, Buzzfeed's case only got stronger, while Moore's began to collapse. Yesterday at 4 p.m., Stuart posted a new story, this one relying on no less than five unnamed officials — you have to imagine the feds were pissed to be induced to produce five sources — as well as handwritten TSA logs. Those logs show that Burnat was referred to secondary inspection at 5:28 p.m., admitted there at 5:30 p.m., and released at 5:53 p.m.
So, are we supposed to rely solely on the self-serving word of government agents? Not quite. The Atlantic's shoe-leather reporting revealed that Burnat's plane arrived at LAX at 4:59 p.m., 14 minutes behind schedule. Even if the plane was blessed with a relatively quick deboarding, it's hard to imagine that Burnat could have first encountered federal agents any earlier than 5:20 p.m.
Weirdly, the Atlantic lets Moore suggest otherwise: “In the half-hour between Burnat's arrival and the first log entry cited in Buzzfeed's post, Moore says Burnat and his family had already been taken to two other holding areas.” Oh really? So the plane landed at 4:59, and somehow magically everyone was ushered into various holding areas within just a few minutes, only to be detained and shuffled to room after room in just 29 minutes? Since when does anything at any airport — much less anything involving an international flight — move that quickly?
A far more likely scenario is this: The plane landed, it took time to gather up everyone's stuff, it took time to get off the plane, there was a short wait in line, and then it was time to talk to Customs and Border Protection, 20-some minutes after the flight landed. (Moore's only contradiction to this is that, after Buzzfeed challenged his account, he looked back at time stamps on his emails and determined that 40 minutes passed between the time Burnat first emailed him and when Burnat told him he was on his way — but that hardly proves anything. By then Burnat could have been in a taxi. And it certainly doesn't provide evidence helping Moore's original claim that the ordeal lasted an hour and a half.)
And then there's the matter of the invitation. Moore first claimed that Burnat produced the “Oscar invite nominees receive,” but that wasn't good enough.
Yet when, in Stuart's account, she paraphrased a Customs official referring to that document as a “ticket” to the Oscars, and saying that the initial referral was made because Burnat couldn't produce it, it somehow became something for Moore to pounce on.
“You see, Buzzfeed, there was no way for Emad Burnat to show Customs an Oscar ticket on Tuesday because there were no Oscar tickets on Tues!” he tweeted, adding, “It's that way every year. Oscar tickets are available only on Thursday through Saturday, the day before the Oscars…” And so on and so on, for tweet after tweet, calling out Stuart and Buzzfeed.
It's that kind of argument that makes trying to deal with Michael Moore so incredibly annoying. When you want to talk specifics, he wants to talk generalities. When you want to talk about the big picture, he insists on arguing about word choice. Presumably, he's counting on no one remembering his initial version of the encounter, in which he refers to an “invitation,” and offers Burnat's production of it as evidence of the officials' boneheadness.
So what if he says “invitation” and Customs tells Stuart “ticket”? This is not enough to call the whole thing off. Clearly, they're talking about the same thing: Burnat was asked to produce some documentation that he really was invited to the Oscars. He did — apparently, after initially coming up empty, he pulled up the invitation in the secondary screening area on his smartphone. And within a few minutes of that (something less than 23 minutes, we'd wager!), he was on his way.
It ought to be case closed. Belligerent man with a history of prevarication and exaggeration runs his mouth; the media does some fact-checking; the record is corrected. But this being 2013, everyone's got to find a way to use this kerfuffle to advance their agenda.
So, the anti-Buzzfeed crowd is using it to attack Buzzfeed. (Glenn Greenwald, for one, called the site “reckless and irresponsible” over at the Huffington Post.) Meanwhile, Moore, who angrily rallied his 1.4 million Twitter followers to bully reporter Stuart, now piously writes in his “final word” on the matter that he was merely standing up to bullies who went after “my friend.” (I suppose you could argue I'm doing the same.)
And as for that friend, Burnat, he released a statement comparing his 23-minute ordeal with what Palestinians face “every single day, throughout the West Bank.”
Really? One conversation with Customs officials after an international flight is comparable to what Palestinians are living with every single day as they attempt to get to work and live their lives? Burnat, of all people, knows better than that — and sure enough, at the end of his statement, he at least puts the kerfuffle in context, admitting, “It's a very minor example of what my people face every day.”
Accent, surely, on the “very minor” — an admission we're still waiting to hear from Michael Moore.