Reporters have done it again.
The latest media misfire on the Trump administration involves Ibtihaj Muhammad, a New Jersey native who made headlines last year when she became the first female Muslim-American to win an Olympic medal for the United States.
Muhammad, a lifelong American citizen, claimed in an interview last week that she was detained "just a few weeks ago" by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. She said she was held for two hours without explanation.
Her remarks on Feb. 7 earned her an entire news cycle, as several journalists ran with reports suggesting, and alleging outright, that the American Olympian had been ensnared in the president's executive order temporarily barring immigration from seven Middle Eastern countries.
But Muhammad has since clarified crucial parts of her story, including the date on which she was detained. A Customs official with direct knowledge of the incident has also disputed much of how she characterized what happened.
"She comes and goes many times. She travels quite extensively. She has never been stopped before," the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Monday in an interview with the Washington Examiner, confirming that she was indeed detained. "She wasn't targeted. The checks are totally random; random checks that we all might be subject to."
Muhammad was also not held for two hours, he said, adding that the entire ordeal wrapped up in under an hour.
It's important to recognize from the get-go that in her Feb. 7 interview, Muhammad didn't put a hard date on when she was detained by Customs. It's also probably worth noting that she is an outspoken Trump critic, and that she is extremely displeased with his immigration order.
Here's a transcript of what the Olympian told Popsugar's Lindsay Miller about being detained by Customs [emphasis added]:
Popsugar: Do you know anyone who was directly impacted by Trump's travel ban?
Ibtihaj Muhammad: Well, I personally was held at Customs for two hours just a few weeks ago. I don't know why. I can't tell you why it happened to me, but I know that I'm Muslim. I have an Arabic name. And even though I represent Team USA and I have that Olympic hardware, it doesn't change how you look and how people perceive you.
Unfortunately, I know that people talk about this having a lot to do with these seven countries in particular, but I think the net is cast a little bit wider than we know. And I'm included in that as a Muslim woman who wears a hijab.
Many journalists skipped over the "when" of Muhammad's story, and rushed to publish reports tying her story to the president's immigration order.
"Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad was detained because of President Trump's travel ban," read a headline published by Time magazine's Motto.
The U.K.'s Independent went with a story titled, "US Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad says she was detained by Customs after Donald Trump's 'Muslim ban.'
The Daily Mail said of the incident that it, "comes after Donald Trump signed an executive order – currently suspended – banning travel from seven largely Muslim countries causing chaos in US airports."
"U.S. Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad being detained illustrates why Trump's Muslim ban is not who we are as Americans," read the headline to an article published by the New York Daily News.
The Hill published an article whose opening paragraph read, "A Muslim-American Olympic medalist says she was detained by Customs for nearly two hours without explanation after President Trump's travel ban was instituted a few weeks ago."
Journalists reacted to the story on social media with the usual mixture of despair and outrage.
The problem with this particular news cycle is that Muhammad was detained in 2016, weeks before Trump had even been sworn in as America's 45th president.
"This all happened in December, which was well before any executive order," the Customs official told the Examiner, "which is a totally separate incident."
Muhammad herself noted several days after her Feb. 7 interview that she meant last December 2016 when she said "just a few weeks ago."
"Thanks to all who reached out regarding the December incident at customs. I will continue be a voice for all impacted by profiling & bigotry," she said in a tweet on Feb. 11.
Let's pause now to review some quick facts:
- Barack Obama was still president in December 2016, meaning Muhammad was detained under America's 44th commander in chief.
- Trump was sworn into office on Jan. 20.
- The executive order on immigration was signed into law on Jan. 27.
To put it plainly, reports suggesting, and alleging, that the executive order had ensnared an American champion are totally false.
Before we go, a few points bear further discussion, and none of them reflect well on Muhammad or the press.
First, it's mind-boggling that no one in that room on Feb. 7 thought to ask her for the exact date on which she was detained. It's a basic duty of journalism to get the who, what, where, when, why and how to every story. That Muhammad's interviewers didn't think to pursue the "when" is astounding.
Secondly, Muhammad isn't blameless in all of this. A less-than-charitable person would suspect her of being intentionally vague and imprecise. She was asked a simple "yes or no" question about the president's immigration order. Instead of giving a simple answer, she provided an anecdote involving the very misleading use of "just a few weeks ago."
Her follow up remarks in that interview are also suggestive. Here's the next part of the transcript:
PS: That must have been a scary moment for you.
IM: It's really hard. My human response is to cry because I was so sad and upset and disheartened — and just disappointed. At the same time, I'm one of those people who feels like I have to be strong for those people who may not be able to find that strength.
I feel like I have to speak up for those people whose voices go unheard. It was a really hard two hours, but at the same time, I made it home. I try to remember to be positive and to try to leave all these situations, even if they may be very difficult, with love. I think that we will come out on top as women, as people of color, as Muslims, as transgender people, as people who are part of the disabled community — I think that we'll come out on top.
Muhammad, who did not respond to the Examiner's request for comment, did no one any favors with her language. Her remarks seemed to suggest her detainment had something to do with the president's executive order. Based on the press' coverage of her comments, many reporters clearly took that to be her meaning.
Lastly, the biggest problem with this particular news cycle is that so many reporters took Muhammad at her word. Few attempted to corroborate her story with Customs. That much is evident from the fact that several journalists thought the incident occurred post-Jan. 27.
In short, this entire news cycle is the result of reporters rushing to fill in the blanks in vague remarks made by a Muslim woman who, they thought, had been affected by the president's immigration executive order. They thought wrong.
"We were surprised and disturbed when we saw the story," the Customs official said. "We didn't mistreat her. We're very proud of what she has done."
This story has been updated.