Gabriel Elizondo, a Brazil-based correspondent for Al Jazeera, is in the middle of a road trip across the United States, talking to people about the effects of 9/11 on American life. In Texas, Elizondo says he just experienced part of the impact firsthand.
"Ten miles," he wrote Sunday in a blog post. "That's how deep I got into Texas before being asked to leave."
On Friday, Elizondo says, he decided to stop at a high school football game in Booker, Texas, near the Oklahoma border. "What better a setting to immerse one's self into Texas rural life than high school football," he wrote. "I easily imagine sitting in the bleachers, eating a hot dog (or three) and drinking a Coke, talking football (the American kind) with parents and maybe slipping in a little 9/11 if they allow me. It's a no brainer for me. I love this stuff. I'll take this over sitting in a White House press briefing any day of the week."
But after Elizondo introduced himself as a member of Al Jazeera to Booker High's principal, a warm Texas welcome apparently turned cold.
"I don't think anything can wipe that double-wide smile off Mrs. Yauck's face," he wrote. "But my Al Jazeera business card does the job pretty quick."
More from the post:
"So you're from Al Jazeera," Mrs. Yauck says in a sharp tone, still looking down at my card. Looking up at me, she adds quickly, " So what's your spin on this story?"
"I don't have a spin," I say, still smiling to try to ease any sudden tension. "What I told you is exactly what I want to do. Just talk to people, film a bit. That is it. Nothing more. Nothing less."
"But you're with Al Jazeera?"
"Yes," I say proudly, still smiling.
But Mrs. Yauck is again staring down at my business card.
"Our superintendent is here, let me just go talk to him and I'll be right back."
According to Elizondo, the superintendent, Michael Lee, 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."
Elizondo says he respected the superintendent's wishes, and left.
I guess I could have snuck back in and secretly filmed with my Blackberry. I could have went back in with a camera rolling and confronted Mr Lee, which would have certainly got the classic shot of him putting his hand in front of the lens of the camera and likely provoked him to call the local sheriff. It would have turned into the largest scandal Booker had likely ever seen. But I quickly decide against it, not wanting to make a mockery of 9/11 just for a cheap TV confrontation trick. That was not my objective going in, and wouldn't be my objective now.
"I want to apologize to you if I came across as disrespectful," Lee wrote in a response on the high school's website. "That certainly was not my intent and is definitely not how I want to represent my community. I do say this with all sincerity."
"I was dealing with several situations in the few minutes prior to the start of the football game, my conversation with you being one," Lee continued. "The most important situation was the fact that two of our elementary children had not arrived at their home. I can assure you that two kids missing is very stressful for an administrator."
But Lee disputed Elizondo's account of the conversation. "You asked me a question about 9/11," he wrote. "I responded to your question. I did not use profanity in my response as indicated in the blog. I do not recall you writing any comments down and verifying them."
More from Lee:
I tried finding you after our other situations were resolved and talk with you more. [...] 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. If you had done these, then the FERPA rights for our students would very well have been violated, especially for the students whose parents have signed papers not allowing the pictures of their children on the web. I do regret however, that you did not return to talk to me more, or "confront" me as you stated in your blog. I think we would have enjoyed a nice conversation. Booker is a community that has accepted diversity for decades, including many different faiths. I am sitting here listening to the music from our annual "Fiesta Night" that celebrates the unification of the many cultures that make up our community.