Golden city manager cancels backyard barbecue for Al Jazeera

Responding to critics who crowded a Golden City Council meeting this week, City Manager Mike Bestor cancelled his invitation to the Al Jazeera English cable news network to interview residents at a barbecue in his back yard during Barack Obama’s acceptance speech.

Al Jazeera English still plans to broadcast from the Buffalo Rose, a saloon on Golden’s historic main street, including a panel discussion on health care and the economy set for Aug. 27. The network, launched two years ago, is the third-largest English language news network, and plans to cover the DNC from the Pepsi Center and other Denver locations.

“The idea here is to broadcast to people all around the world and give them a sense of how Americans are engaged in their own political process,” Rob Reynolds, senior correspondent with Al Jazeera, told KWGN-TV.

That political process turned on the network when Golden residents aired their complaints during the public comment section at a city council meeting. “I am not happy about Al Jazeera infiltrating our small town and portraying us however they see fit,” said Dawne Montoya, according to KWGN-TV.

Some residents showed up to speak in favor of welcoming the network, but many questioned whether Bestor’s involvement would constitute an endorsement of the Qatar-based news group. Bestor didn’t return phone calls Friday, but the city posted a letter explaining his decision on its Web site:

City Manager Mike Bestor explained that he had made the invitation to host the barbecue as a private citizen, believing that doing so would enable him to ensure that that a representative group of Golden citizens were interviewed and that Golden would be fairly represented. He said he believed that hosting such a discussion of the issues was an excellent way to illustrate democracy to the rest of the world and to show that neighbors can disagree politically and still work together toward the good of their community.

However, after listening to the thoughtful comments of many citizens on both sides of the issue, Bestor said he realized that his position as the City Manager inadvertently tied his personal invitation to Al Jazeera to the City and the Council. He also said that he was “sorry for the divisiveness this has caused in the community” and that he had not intended in any way to insult or disrespect the many brave veterans and men and women currently serving this country in the Armed Forces. As such, he revoked the invitation he had previously extended to Al Jazeera.

After reiterating the city council’s support of the First Amendment, the letter went on to say:

The City of Golden doesn’t have the right to restrict or prohibit Al Jazeera or any other news agency from broadcasting out of the City, whether we approve of their coverage or not, whether we share their perspectives or not, whether we find their coverage offensive or not.

City leaders told a different story a week ago when they were celebrating Al Jazeera’s planned broadcast from the sleepy town 15 miles west of downtown Denver. As The Denver Post reported:

“Al-Jazeera is always going to evoke some raised eyebrows from folks who aren’t real familiar with their work since it isn’t seen here,” city spokeswoman Sabrina D’Agosta said.

But, she said, “al-Jazeera is a legitimate news organization, and we want those 120 million viewers to see that regular folks in the United States are great people and we have a lot of diversity in our population and our views.”

While al-Jazeera has been controversial, “I don’t have a problem with them being here,” said Gary Wink, president of the Golden Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody in the world is going to be watching this convention, so why not show Golden?”

D’Agosta didn’t return phone calls Friday after her boss changed his mind in the face of public criticism. She did, however, post the letter from the city on YourHub, including the remarks about Bestor’s invitation “inadvertently” linking his barbecue invitation to the city and its elected officials.

A week ago, the link was perhaps less inadvertent, as Golden Mayor Jacob Smith told the Post he was one of those attending the barbecue to discuss the environment on camera along with members of a town committee on sustainability. “It’s a terrific opportunity to let parts of the world that watch al-Jazeera see what democracy is like in a small town,” the mayor said. Last night, they found out, even if the network’s cameras weren’t rolling.

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Ernest Luning

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