For viewers of HBO's satirical "Da Ali G Show," the name and modus operandi may ring a bell. On the show, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays three characters, including Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakhstani journalist whose bumbling or racist exploits often provoke stunned onlookers. Last season, "Borat" got a crowd in a Southern bar to sing a country song with the refrain, "throw the Jew down the well."
Because the Roanoke newspaper does not cover rodeos, no reporter was on hand to catch the offending behavior. General-assignment reporter Laurence Hammack, who usually covers legal issues, told E&P today that the meaty story landed at his desk after answering an irate reader's call Saturday morning.
The reader, he said, "couldn't believe there wasn't anything in the newspaper because there was what she described as a 'semi-terrorist' figure who was making all sorts of threatening comments about President Bush," Hammack said.
Apparently the singer had ended his version of the national anthem with the words, "and your home ... in the ... grave."
In his reporting, Hammack has tried to answer the question: could the national anthem singer be Cohen, in character, for his show? Or was it an elaborately staged hoax by an imposter (of an imposter)?
To meet reader response, the Times has created an online message board to host a discussion, called "Who Is That Guy?"
"I think it's probably a pretty good chance that it is him," Hammack said. Hammack and his editors did extensive fact checking -- they called HBO and Cohen's publicist, who denied that the show was filming -- but in the first story (which ran on Sunday), they were hesitant to mention the possible Ali G connection.
"I think the first mention of Ali G was almost at the end of the story since we had no confirmation," he said. "We had people who had seen him on the show, who saw him that night, and were convinced that it was the same guy. We had one person who thought that he saw HBO insignias on some of the equipment, and of course we knew Ali G was carried by HBO."
But then there was the nagging question of the man's name. Hammack said that rodeo organizers introduced him as Boraq Sagdiyev. And Cohen's character spells his name with a 't.'
"The name [an organizer] gave to me was with a 'q' and I triple checked that just because it's such an unusual name," Hammack said. "But I think that easily could have been a mishap in translation. Or maybe, if it really was Ali G, and they were trying to be a little bit coy, maybe they altered it just a little bit."
In a follow-up story the next day, Hammack explored the Ali G link further.
"On the second day the story had the benefit of a photograph which we obtained from the NBC affiliate that was there," he said. The paper then ran the photograph along with one of Borat.
"In addition to looking almost identical, he's also wearing the same shirt which is a very distinctive American flag," Hammack explained. "Certainly this was a strong suggestion that it was Ali G."
Another piece of evidence came after the second story was published. Hammack said he received an e-mail from an advertising and community relations employee for Kroger grocery store in Charleston, W.V. who reported a similar crew approaching a local store to host "an immigrant ... along with a crew to film his experiences in a typical American supermarket. They also requested that he be escorted by a member of management as he went through the store."
The company denied the request.
As Charleston is only three hours away from Salem, Va., and the timing coincided, Hammack believes the company to be affiliated with Ali G: "My guess is if it was Ali G, they're probably somewhere in Appalachia right now doing the same thing somewhere else."
Regardless of the connection, rodeo fans in Salem, which Hammack characterizes as a typically "pro-America, pro-Bush, pro-war crowd" were displeased. Responses on the message board, however, are both pro and con.
"I've seen this guy a few times on HBO," wrote L. Murray. "He rambles on sometimes and I don't like the raunchy rap interludes, but when he's on the mark about this country's politics, customs and foibles, he's hysterical. A breath of fresh air. "
But Ray Wilburn commented: "the whole Roanoke Valley should drop HBO until they make a statement. We need to do this for the respect for men & ladies in our military. "
By: Brian Orloff Rodeo fans in Salem, Va., got more than they bargained for over the weekend, The Roanoke (Va.) Times reported. According to the newspaper, a dark-haired foreigner -- decked out in an American flag shirt and black cowboy hat and introduced as Boraq Sagdiyev -- bungled the national anthem and made a few remarks that seemed to mock President Bush, which irked many of the 4,000 rodeo-goers.