Al Jazeera—Aren’t they the no-good varmints who bombed us on 9/11?
Um, no. But a connection between the increasingly influential Qatar-based broadcaster and the terrorist group al-Qaida seems to linger, at least in the minds of some Texas public school administrators.
In a post on Al Jazeera’s English-language website, reporter Gabriel Elizondo tells of being barred from interviewing spectators at a high school football game in rural Booker, Texas, after district officials learned the name of his employer. Elizondo, an American who lives in Brazil, was on a cross-country trip to report on American attitudes about 9/11 and its aftermath.
He introduced himself to the principal, who was all smiles until she saw his business card, according to his account. Then the superintendent got involved, and things went downhill. From Elizondo’s post:
I am pretty sure (the superintendent) said: “I think it was damn rotten what they did.”
“I am sorry, what who did?” I say, not sure exactly if he was calling me rotten, the terrorists rotten, [Al Jazeera] rotten, or all of the above.
“The people that did this to us,” he says back to me with a smirk, still glaring uncomfortably straight at my eyes.
“Well, I think it was bad too,” I say. “Well, do you think, sir, we can film a bit of the game and talk to some people here about just that?”
“No. You can’t film, you can’t take pictures, or interview people.”
“OK, can I ask why? And if you allow me can I explain…”
“No, I just expect that you will respect it.”
Clearly he didn’t want to hear anything from me.
Al Jazeera is not welcome here.
Elizondo’s conclusion has echoed on blogs, including Wonkette—“Isn’t this a scene from Borat?”—and Gawker—“This is America, Mr. Elizondo. Welcome, and go to hell!” A blog post in the Washington Post gets into the history of anti-Al Jazeera sentiment in America, recalling that U.S. officials slammed the network in 2003 for broadcasting gory images from Iraq.
Meanwhile, in a pseudo-apology letter reprinted by Al Jazeera on Monday, one of the school administrators in question offered his side of the encounter. The superintendent, Michael Lee, skirts the question of his feelings toward Al Jazeera, whatever they may be. But he stands by his decision, framing the issue as one of students’ privacy rights:
I would not have changed my mind about allowing you to just drop by and interview people and film our students. We did not have prior notice and we certainly did not have time to verify who you were. Also, I would have asked you not to do those things at a public event, on public property and at a public school function.
While Lee seems to have his First Amendment law a bit backwards—the media generally has more rights on public property, not less—it’s true that permission to report on school grounds can be tricky. And his explanation has the virtue of not being explicitly xenophobic. In fact, Lee notes proudly, Booker “has accepted diversity for decades” and even has its annual “Fiesta Night” coming up.
Responding to the brouhaha, a blogger for the Houston Chronicle stands up for her state, arguing it’s actually Elizondo who is guilty of stereotyping.
Is Elizondo just being paranoid to see anti-Muslim sentiment at work? There’s no way of getting into the mind of the administrators, but comments on some of the conservative-leaning sites that have picked up the story make it clear they wouldn’t be the only Americans to shun Al Jazeera. “We need to exile all of them!” and “He should probably consider himself lucky to have walked away” were among the most-liked comments on Fox Nation’s version of the story Tuesday afternoon.
Not that commenters on more liberal sites showed much more tolerance. One who posted on Wonkette shrugged at the report of the brush-off: “I say the same thing to Fox Newsies.”