COMMENTARY: An independent newspaper works for open and accountable government
By JOSEPH MARTIN
I was 26 years old when I was hired as editor of the Cherokee One Feather. I had no editing experience, no management experience, no supervisory experience, and I certainly had no experience putting together a budget. All I had was the reporting, writing and radio production experience I had learned in college. Yet here I was, about to oversee a weekly newspaper. It was sink or swim time.
There were a lot of headaches and heartburn, but I learned quickly and made the best of my time there. The paper quickly gained respect and earned credibility, to the point that Associated Press published one of the paper’s stories. I’m proud of my accomplishments there.
However, just as it is off of the reservation, not everyone is a fan of the media. Adding to that challenge was the fact that the One Feather is owned by and gets most of its funding from the tribe. That gives those with contempt for the media power. Should the paper publish an article about child molesters, murderers, underhanded political schemes to circumvent public input, or government corruption, all it takes is a phone call and elected officials will be breathing down the editor’s neck, even calling for or getting a termination.
I’ve had the pleasure to serve as associate editor at the Cherokee Scout in Murphy and the Andrews Journal. I experienced much of the same reactions to stories about crime or editorial commentary, but the reactions ended when the conversation was over. At the One Feather, it wasn’t uncommon to get a phone call or a visit from the chief, vice chief or a council member. The thought that the Cherokee County Commission, Murphy Town Council or Andrews Board of Aldermen would have that kind of influence over the media would make Publisher David Brown shudder.
Throughout my nearly 12-year tenure at the paper, one thing would become painfully clear, this tribe needs an independent newspaper, and it needs the tools to allow such a newspaper to do its job. Market research and continuous public feedback show that the tribal members and One Feather’s readership want independence for the paper, and fluff disguised as news doesn’t fly.
We need to focus on these key areas:
- Public information laws – The tribe has them, but enforcing them is another matter. Tribal officials in recent years have been able to deny what their own law deems public with no consequences. In addition, all need access to what is deemed public. The idea that public information is only public for tribal members is not only ridiculous, it’s unrealistic.
- Open meetings laws – We have open meetings laws, but in too many instances, they were ignored or willfully violated, and tribal government’s recent willingness to not only meet in closed sessions, excluding the public and the media, but to adopt actions in those sessions is disgraceful. Again, there are no legal consequences for violations of this law.
- Media access – Reporters for WLOS and Smoky Mountain News get restricted, if any access. These media are funded through advertisements and are privately owned. That means tribal officials can’t threaten them. So denials have been a punitive response. That also means they’ve built major mistrust in the journalists who work for these outlets (who work for the tribe’s constituents). Those who constantly kick a dog shouldn’t be surprised when it bites. Let the media, all the media, do its job.
- Push toward non tribal funding – the paper will need at least 50 percent of its print space in advertising to make a profit. Less tribal funding bolsters the paper’s push for editorial independence. This presents a challenge in the current business climate for publishing, but it’s doable.
- Professional supervision for the One Feather – part of the language in the code providing the paper the freedom to do its job is setting up an editorial board. Since it was originally passed, the law was watered down. The board now consists of the paper’s staff and staff of marketing and public relations, according to the wording of the Free Press Act, something that wasn’t there when it passed in 2006. Any professional public relations practitioner or journalist can confirm this is a huge conflict of interest. Tribal employees are still subject to political interference. The board needs to be appointed from non-tribal employees. They all need to be journalists or former journalists, and they need to know the boundaries and how to avoid blurring the line between public relations and journalism. The paper also needs to be removed from the tribal structure and be its own entity.
A democracy can’t survive without a free press. The problem the Eastern Band has (The Cherokee Nation’s Free Press law, the basis of our free press law, has the same flaw.) is that its free press is solely dependent upon leadership that believes in it. During my tenure at the One Feather, I’ve been privileged to work for two administrations that gave me the independence I needed. However, the tribe’s newspaper should’ve been allowed to operate as a newspaper under free press protection whether the elected officials support it or not.
The public needs to demand this, and I’m optimistic that Principal Chief Patrick Lambert and Vice Chief Sneed’s administration with council’s support will move the paper and press freedom in a positive direction so our community can have a newspaper providing the level of fourth estate watchdogging it deserves.
Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather and currently resides on tribal lands in Cherokee County.