EDITORIAL: Taking baby steps toward a free press  

by Apr 25, 2016OPINIONS0 comments





With any luck, the Editorial Board of the Cherokee One Feather will be speaking with Tribal Council on the issue of free press for the tribal community in the next session. We have two proposed resolutions that are currently tabled that we hope to explain and have looked favorably upon by the Council.

According to the Cherokee Code, the One Feather was established for the people on April 3, 1953. That is the date on Resolution number 13 which is codified in Section 75. We began as a way to report the workings of your government and to share information of interest to the Cherokee people. For many years, the newspaper operated without direction or protection from manipulation by the government that the One Feather was created to report upon.

In 2006, Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy introduced free press legislation to attempt to provide that protection and direction. The Free Press Act was the first effort to unleash the power of the press for the people. It created an Editorial Board to provide guidance with regard to policies and procedures that would permit and protect freedom of speech, but protect the public from libelous and inappropriate content. Originally, the Act designated the Council to appoint members to make up an editorial committee. Sometime after the Act was established, an amendment was brought in to change the makeup of the Editorial Board to the staff of the One Feather plus the Marketing and Public Relations Director. In subsequent years, the position of Marketing and Public Relations Director was “reorganized” out of existence.

One of those proposed resolutions would overhaul the makeup of the Editorial Board. Currently, the Board is comprised of the Secretary of Commerce, Destination Marketing Manager, Community and Public Relations Supervisor, Creative Resources Coordinator, Editor, Reporter, Sales Coordinator and Subscription Clerk. The current make-up does not comply with the Cherokee Code, which contains the Free Press Act (Sec. 75-50, Ord. 214, 5/12/2006).

The reason that the Commerce Secretary and Destination Marketing Manager are a part of the Editorial Board currently is that when the Marketing Director was dissolved, the duties of that position were split into those two new positions. The Community and Public Relations Supervisor and Creative Resources Coordinator appear on the One Feather’s payroll, so they are considered One Feather staff and, by the letter of the ordinance, automatically on the Editorial Board.

The reason that the Editorial Board is asking for the change to the Code is that it is a conflict of interest for government employees to have voting authority over the policies of the One Feather. Because the human resources policy is also codified, the work that a newspaper is tasked to do is subject to a chain of command (your boss – and your boss’s boss – can dictate to you what you will or will not report), confidentiality (anything you hear at work can be deemed confidential and you are unable to report it) and employees are banned from doing or saying anything that would make the Tribe look bad (reporting negative news about the tribe or a government official could get you reprimanded and even fired).

Let me stop here and say that our Principal Chief, Vice Chief, Tribal Council, Secretary of Commerce, Destination Marketing Manager and Public Relations Coordinator have bent over backwards to not interfere with the working of the Free Press Act to date. I believe these leaders to be ethical and upright. For the most part, I believe they share our desire to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. On the other hand, there have not been any news reports from the One Feather that would challenge their specific authority or implicate them in bad behavior (with documentable evidence). What happens when we receive that type of information? The decision cannot be left to people whose jobs may be in jeopardy or those in power who might stand to lose political footing because of a report.

The Editorial Board needs to be made up of people who understand journalism, the code of ethics that we fall under, and the community that this newspaper serves. That is why the Editorial Board is requesting a change to the ordinance to permit the selection of a three-member editorial board. All three may or may not be members of the Cherokee community (at least one member must be). At least two of the members must have a journalism or media expertise. To prevent undue political influence in the selection process, we request that the new board be selected by the current Editorial Board and that the selections be permanent (until they resign, so cause for dismissal or die). This would take the policy making function out of the hands of those who might be directly politically-influenced by the government. The amendment further asks that the Editor of the One Feather be a member of that Board in a non-voting capacity. We feel that the voice of those doing day-to-day operations should be heard by the Board.

The other amendment proposed by the Editorial Board concerns a portion of the law which dictates Board review of any article that is deemed “controversial”. We feel that review of articles is part of the day-to-day function of the paper and should be left to the staff and, particularly, to the editor.

“Controversial” is a vague term that could be applied to any situation to prevent the release of information. We believe it is another attempt to control truthful communication with the public. Once the Editorial Board establishes policy for content based on its understanding of controversial content, then all that is left to do is the staff comparing content to the guidelines and following accordingly. There is no need for the current level of censorship based on a vague term, and the Board is requesting that it be stricken from the law.

The Cherokee One Feather belongs to the people of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (Cherokee Code, Section 75-1, Resolution Number 13). Several of the people you elected to office told you that they are in support of a free press that is safe from censorship. Let your elected officials know that you will accept nothing less than absolute freedom in your newspaper to know what is going on in government and who is doing it. You deserve nothing less.