Perez: A Kid and His Clock

by Sarah Perez | 9/30/15 6:33pm

On Sept. 14, Ahmed Mohamed’s school day took a turn for the unexpected when he ended up in handcuffs. He had arrived at school that morning with an unusual looking device that he claimed was a homemade clock. According to a Sept. 16 report in the New York Times, the clock was composed of “a metal briefcase-style box, a digital display, wires and a circuit board.” Mohamed’s arrest sparked a firestorm on social media. He was either hailed as a budding engineer or pegged as a potential terrorist.

Unfortunately, both sides severely miss the mark. Mohamed’s story casts light on the true colors of the American media. Charged with the great responsibility of disseminating reliable information, news outlets have essentially done the opposite. In their perpetual horse race to politicize events, they advance erroneous narratives and ultimately disservice the American people.

When all is said and done, all we have to go on is fact. We should not allow the American media to be the final arbiter of truth, for fact mixed with political spin quickly devolves into fiction. Although the facts of the Ahmed Mohamed case remain murky, we know a few things for certain. First, we know that Mohamed arrived at school that morning with something out of the ordinary in his possession. Second, we know that his engineering teacher had asked the teenager to refrain from showing the invention to others. Later in the day, the clock’s alarm went off in Mohamed’s English class. After the teacher informed school officials of the device, police were called to the scene. Third, we know that Mohamed was suspended and taken into custody on the afternoon of Sept. 14.

Taking the above into consideration, coverage of Mohamed’s story has left much to be desired. In a display of haste and naivete, some news outlets rushed to victimize Mohamed and arouse sympathy for his plight. CNN was one of many to provide their assessment soon after the story broke. A Sept. 16 report from the outlet characterized Mohamed as “a teenager with dreams of becoming an engineer.” Similarly, the New York Times described the 14-year-old as “partial to tinkering, technology and NASA T-shirts.” Before the full facts of the case had come to light, these outlets presumed Mohamed’s innocence, as shown through these favorable and humanizing details. Many outlets were also quick to decry the incident as evidence of Islamophobia and racism in the United States. While these narratives should not be discredited entirely, there is room for debate.

By immediately injecting their own political narratives, news outlets squelch all possibility of conversation and prevent meaningful, organic dialogue. Reverting to canned narratives for the sake of readership compromises legitimacy and robs audiences of the opportunity to independently decipher information.

In the same way that some outlets immediately exonerated Mohamed of all blame, others jumped to the opposite conclusion. Some did not waste time in portraying Mohamed as a national security threat in the making, ignoring the fact that his teacher deemed the device safe enough to not call the authorities at first — or that the device was, in fact, a clock. The bottom line is clear — both sides seriously erred in their coverage of the story. They relied on emotion instead of evidence and replaced objective fact with passion. As such, they are both guilty of advancing politically expedient narratives to appeal to their respective audiences.

Prior experience can provide us with additional, rational insight. We know that the Mohamed case is not the first time that school officials have overreacted. In 2013, Maryland school officials suspended first-grader Josh Welch for gnawing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun, pointing it at a fellow student, and saying “bang, bang.” Before alleging systemic racism or Islamophobia, cases like these must be taken into account. Yet, to deny that race can play a role in administrative actions is likewise biased — take the story of Jalyn Broussard, an African-American 6-year-old kicked out of kindergarten for his unremarkable haircut. Sometimes discrimination is present, and sometimes it is not. In forming our opinions of such overreactions, we should primarily remember one fact — the duty of school officials is to protect. Ultimately, it is far better to be safe than sorry, even if it means sacrificing some political correctness along the way.