COMMENTARY: A strong free press benefits us all

by Aug 16, 2018OPINIONS





The media’s relationship with elected officials, has at times, been a contentious one, but it’s undeniable a free press provides a valuable service to the public in a democracy. When the media is owned and funded by a government, whose elected officials make decisions on budgets, policy and staffing, as is the case with the One Feather, then that poses a challenge. However, the One Feather has a unique situation that “Stars and Stripes,” or “Pravda” do not. It has laws that guarantee a level of independence to provide those elected officials accountability to their constituents.

Over my 20 plus years in this business, I’ve developed some keen insight to the industry, both from the private side and government run. Both deal with censorship, but in different sources. While in the One Feather’s case it has come from tribal politicians and officials, in the private media, it comes from advertisers. And with increasing financial uncertainty in the business, losing advertisers is something they don’t take lightly.

The One Feather, like our Cherokee Nation colleagues at the Cherokee Phoenix, has a free press law to allow the independence to provide the public with a valued fourth estate, but like the Cherokee Nation law it has a flaw. For it to work, it depends on leadership who believes in it. That’s not always the case.

There is a proposal introduced before Tribal Council to amend the current Free Press Act with much needed changes, such as removing the nonexistent director of a nonexistent division from the editorial board. But more importantly it proposes consequences for violations and allows the One Feather to make its own determinations whether to use anonymous sources.

The decision to use anonymous sources is one journalists don’t take lightly. The motives of someone wanting to conceal their identity are easily questionable. When using such sources, the liability falls on the media outlet, and it can be a major risk to credibility.

There are times when using such sources is necessary. The corruption of the Nixon administration was verified through an anonymous source, and likely the story wouldn’t have gotten out without it. If it’s newsworthy, particularly of value toward protecting democracy and holding public officials accountable to their constituents, and if there is no other way to verify than to keep a source anonymous, then there is a need to assure anonymity.

The Free Press Act hasn’t been perfect, but it has been a great tool to establish a precedence of honoring the rights of the media. The issues addressed in the latest amendment proposed don’t deal with all issues surrounding tribal government and its relationship with the press (access particularly), but it’s a much-needed start. Passing it would also be a far better example than what’s shown from a president who regularly demonizes and encourages hostility toward the press.

Finally, those of us working in the media aren’t the enemy. We’re your neighbors. Our kids go to school with your kids, play on your kids’ sports teams. We go to the same churches, and we’re your advocates. Without us, citizens would have no idea what their elected representatives and government officials are doing, good, bad or indifferent. The proposed changes to the Free Press Act are necessary. Let’s make them a reality.