On Sunday, Americans across the nation mourned what has become widely considered as the greatest American tragedy of modern times on the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. While hundreds of journalists traversed different parts of the country to gauge reactions and sentiment about the terrorism milestone, at least one journalist was given the boot for rather misguided reasons. Troublingly, the place he ran into trouble was a high school football field.
As outlined in much greater detail on his personal blog, Al Jazeera reporter Gabriel Elizondo was refused permission to interview any fans at the Booker (Texas) High football game just more than a week before the anniversary of 9/11. Elizondo had hoped to gain some rural Texas ration to the tragedy as part of his travels across the entire country in which he is gauging how the tragic event has affected American life.
Yet, it wasn't so much the fact that Elizondo was not allowed to interview high school football fans as it was the implied reason he wasn't allowed to interview them: He works for Al Jazeera.
After initially agreeing that talking to Booker residents about 9/11 at halftime of the football game was a fine idea, Booker High principal Lisa Yauck suddenly decided that she needed to consult with Booker schools superintendent Michael Lee before granting permission for Elizondo to interview fans at the game. When Lee later approached Elizondo, he made it clear that he would not be allowed to interview anyone at the game, nor film any footage for background shots in his forthcoming project about the anniversary.
For what it's worth, Lee later sent Elizondo a letter declaring that he rejected his request to interview fans at the game because it violated their rights. That logic seems a bit questionable, since the fans themselves would have always had the right to reject any interview requests from the reporter himself (who paid his own way into the game, incidentally).
Elizondo's own blog post about the incident sets out the exact dialogue between the two men. Judge yourself if you think Lee was acting to protect his constituents, or out of spite for the fact that a reporter in his town's venue happened to work for an Arab network commonly mistaken as a media arm of Al Queda.
I tried my best: "So, I guess Mrs Yauck told you who I am. I am a journalist crossing the country doing random stories about the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 and I was hoping to talk to some people here about it at the game, and get some opinions."
He then said something I could not entirely make out, because his voice sort of quivered from a combination of being obviously furious and nervous at the same time.
But I am pretty sure he 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."
That Elizondo would find some terse reactions at certain parts of his journey should come as little surprise. While American culture may be improved, this country is certainly still a long way from being free of the scourge of racism.
What may be surprising is that such blatant persecution came solely because of his employer and had nothing to do with his own race (Elizondo, who is Hispanic, has served as the Brazilian correspondent for Al Jazeera for nearly half a decade).
After all, Al Jazeera has absolutely nothing to do with Al Queda. Yes, the network aired messages from Osama Bin Laden. So did CBS, ABC and a handful of other networks. That Al Queda has a market stronghold in the middle east is no more surprising than the fact that CNN and Sky News have market strongholds in North American and Europe, respectively. The Qatari-owned network (keep in mind that a handful of sports franchises are now also owned or invested heavily in by Qatari holding companies) had nothing to do with 9/11. It was not involved in planning the horrific attacks. It was not involved in organizing Osama Bin Laden's long evasion of American forces. It was not involved in any aspect of terrorism any more than all other news outlets were involved in terrorism.
In short, it only reported about it.
Yet it's troubling that a high school sporting event, where fans are expected to unify behind their team regardless of race or differences, would serve as the backdrop for such a disappointing spectacle. And while we can all hope that Booker High's game was an exception to the larger high school football-attending public, at the end of the day that is only a hope. American sports should be beyond hatred and ugly spite, particularly when it's as misguided as the impulses acted on by Yauck and Lee.