BuzzFeed is once again being lambasted for its reporting — this time by the filmmaker Michael Moore — and much like the last time this happened, the viral-news website is finding few defenders from within the journalism community.
(IBITimes) -Moore went on a Twitter tirade on Tuesday afternoon after an article by Tessa Stuart, a Los Angeles-based BuzzFeed reporter, implied that he exaggerated some of the facts regarding a story about a Palestinian filmmaker being detained at Los Angeles International Airport. Moore had been tweeting about his efforts to vouch for Emad Burnat, the Oscar-nominated co-director of “5 Broken Cameras,” who said he and his family were detained for some 90 minutes at U.S. Customs and Border Protection when they arrived at LAX from Turkey.
According to Moore and Burnat’s version of the story, customs officers threatened Burnat with deportation if he could not produce documents proving that he was invited to Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony. Burnat — who is Palestinian, and whose wife was wearing a hijab — showed the officers the invitation that was sent to all Oscar nominees, but that allegedly wasn’t good enough. According to Moore’s tweets, it was only after Moore personally intervened that the filmmaker was permitted into the country.
Continuing in a series of tweets, Moore proceeded to call Stuart’s source’s version of the story an “outright lie.” The “Fahrenheit 9/11” filmmaker went on to explain that Burnat could not have shown an Oscar ticket to customs officers — as Stuart’s source claims — because physical tickets weren’t issued to any of the Oscar attendees until the Thursday before the ceremony.
“It’s that way every year,” Moore continued. “Oscar tickets are available only on Thursday through Saturday, the day before the Oscars.”
Stuart later updated her story with Moore’s tweeted version of what happened. (She had also apparently been trying via Twitter to get him to tell her his side of the story directly.) In her update, she explained that the differences in the two stories hinge upon what type of documentation Burnat was asked to produce to customs officers. Was it a ticket, an invitation or something else? She wrote that she had reached out to her source at LAX for clarification but had not yet heard back.
As of early Tuesday afternoon, Stuart’s story had still not been updated. In an email to IBTimes, Stuart said she is still reporting on the incident and that new information would be added shortly.
Meanwhile, media reporters have been running amok with the “BuzzFeed vs. Michael Moore” narrative, with many either taking Moore’s side or publishing stories that bolster his account. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Zakarin quoted a representative for the filmmakers who backed up Moore’s claim. Blasting BuzzFeed, the rep told THR via email, “It’s pretty insensitive to attempt to minimize anguish of this experience for Emad and his family.”
The Atlantic Wire’s Alex Abad-Santos wrote in a blog post Tuesday morning that “Someone’s not telling the truth about what happened,” adding that, at least for now, BuzzFeed appears “to be on the losing end of this one.” Abad-Santos noted that the original subhead and first sentence of Stuart’s article referred to “sources” at LAX that have refuted Moore’s account. As it turns out, Stuart talked to only a single source, a fact that was later clarified in a correction posted at the end of Stuart’s article.
Stuart, a former reporter for LA Weekly, joined BuzzFeed in December, according to FishbowlLA — just two months after BuzzFeed announced it was opening a Los Angeles bureau. In January, the rapidly growing website announced that it had raised another $19.3 million in Series D financing led by the venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.
But that growth has not come without its growing pains, as this latest debacle shows, and this is not the first time BuzzFeed has been called out in recent months for its reporting. In December, the website found itself in hot water after contributor Jack Stuef published a would-be expose on The Oatmeal cartoonist Matthew Inman in which Stuef characterized Inman as a Republican and, essentially, a hypocrite. However, Inman posted a lengthy rebuttal to the piece, revealing that Stuef had built his thesis partially around an online profile that, it turned out, didn’t belong to Inman. BuzzFeed’s editor, Ben Smith, later told GigaOM that he regretted the “major factual error.” Then, like this week, no shortage of media reporters jumped on the story, eager to report on BuzzFeed’s mistake.
Moore, for his part, said via Twitter that he was not looking to shame the website. “Sorry you guys had to go through this,” he tweeted just after midnight Tuesday morning. “I did not want to publicly embarrass you. I like Buzzfeed.”
[Update: 4:34 pm] Stuart posted a new article on Tuesday afternoon again countering Moore’s account of the events — in particular, his contention that Burnat was detained for 90 minutes. Citing a handwritten log maintained by federal agents at LAX, Stuart wrote that the records show that Burnat was detained for 23 minutes, confirming her source’s account of the timeline.
[Update: Feb. 27] On the Huffington Post Wednesday morning, Moore wrote what he calls his “final word” on the issue. In response to Stuart’s follow-up piece, he argues that the handwritten logs were only from one interrogation area. LAX has multiple interrogation areas, he wrote, and the 23 minutes only accounted for the secondary area, not the total time Burnat and his family were detained. Read the full piece here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified the editor of BuzzFeed as Ben Stein. The editor is Ben Smith (although we’re not saying Mr. Stein woudln’t make a great editor).