Was Al-Jazeera Reporter Treated Ugly?

Was Al-Jazeera Reporter Treated Ugly? September 7, 2011

Really, I have no longstanding grudge against Texas, the soil that yielded Buddy Holly, Larry McMurtry and (I assume) Texas toast, and which received Pee Wee Herman so hospitably during his big adventure. It’s true, for about fifteen years, I had a Texas-born stepmother, whom one of my father’s friends properly calls “cold as a brass jock strap.” But she spoke French, and ended up writing an object-relations biography of Flaubert, so I assume the harpy no longer counts.

For that reason, I consider myself able to report on the big story from the small Texas town of Booker.

In brief: An Al-Jazeera correspondent named Gabriel Elizondo was dispatched from his home base in Brazil to report on 9/11’s long-term effects on American life. Figuring, “What better a setting to immerse one’s self into Texas rural life than high school football,” he introduced himself to Mrs. Yauck, the principal of Booker High, whose “double-wide smile” contracted at the sight of his business card. According to Elizondo, she conferred with school superintendent Michael Lee, who told Elizondo, “I think it was damn rotten what they did,” and denied him permission to film the game or interview students. Not wanting to settle for a “classic shot of [Lee] putting his hand in front of the lens of the camera,” Elizondo left.

Posting on the high school’s website, Lee has explained that he did not mean to appear “disrespectful.” He reports being preoccupied with several other problems — among them the fact that two elementary school students had yet to arrive home — when Elizondo submitted his request. Once free, he sought out Booker, hoping to talk more – in particular, to explain that allowing students to be filmed might violate their FERPA rights. Lee also denies using “profanity” in his talk with Elizondo.

Did Lee make any knee-jerk equation between Al-Jazeera and the 9/11 hijackers? Not even Elizondo claims to know for sure. Certainly, Lee didn’t say, “Wait a second while I do the rest of my job; then I’ll come explain the potential legal ramifications of your request.” On the other hand, up to the point of their encounter, Elizondo doesn’t seem to have had much of a story going. His blog post begins with lengthy descriptions of a rather nondescript town. An Easy Rider-type cultural clash — or even the suggestion of one –would have been a godsend. And, in fact, his account has attracted over a million Facebook shares.

The TMC blogger scores a point for — or maybe deducts a point from — each side. He observes that asking permission to film on public property was an act of unnecessary courtesy on Elizondo’s part. “Look, I’m not sure how they teach the First Amendment in Booker,” he writes. But as long as nobody’s interrupting the game, a peaceful conversation in a public place should not be Lee’s business.”

At the same time, he points out that, to represent the town of Booker, Elizondo insisted on posting a photo of crudely drawn sign advertising an upcoming gun show. In a word, he wasn’t above throwing his readers a bit of red halal meat.

In any case, if Elizondo really is interested in interviewing Texas high school kids, Texas high schools may be the last place to find them. According to a recent study of a million Texas high schoolers, over half were suspended or expelled. This might sound like an unfortunate, inevitable outgrowth of various “no-tolerance” policies, but apparently it’s not. Only 3% of punishments were mandated by state law; the rest were handed down at the discretion of school authorities.

At this point, the only sensible conclusion may be, “Mess with Texas if you must, but mess with Texas educators at your peril.”

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