EDITORIAL: A crisis of credibility

by Nov 16, 2018OPINIONS





2015 – “Officially confirming the fourth estate to the framework of our government is an important exercise in tribal sovereignty and self-governance. We intend to perpetuate this exercise by immediately utilizing the protective provisions of this bill to fulfill its purpose of bringing fair and balanced accounts of MCN affairs to the citizens.” – Sterling Cosper, Editor, Muscogee Nation News

2015 – “The citizens will get timely, pertinent news from credible journalists with excellent sources and documentation to back their work. The fact that the fourth largest tribe in America will fund a department to be the watchdog sends a clear, concise message that transparent government is a top priority. My hope is that others will do the same.” – Jason Salsman, Interim Manager, Mvskoke Media

2018 – “I don’t agree with the actions that were taken tonight, but I respect the decisions of my tribe’s government. The work we’ve done as an independent outlet is not gone, but I do not want to be complicit in whatever comes out of this point moving forward.” – Sterling Cosper, as he resigned as the manager of Mvskoke Media due to the repeal of Muscogee Nation’s Free Press Act.

2018 – “I’m extremely concerned that this sets a terrible precedent for the rest of Indian Country. I’m from rural Oklahoma. If you put a major improvement on a ranch, you don’t tear it up and throw it up after a couple of years if something doesn’t work right. You fix it. This is the first time I can remember a tribe has passed an independent press act and revoked it. This is unprecedented.” – Kevin Kemper, attorney and free press researcher in attendance at the tribal council’s vote.

Once upon a time at the One Feather, journalists were focusing on the daily documentation of the history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in progress. After all, that is what news reporting is; the documentation of life as it happens. The One Feather founders saw the paper as a means to inform the people particularly about the activities of the government.

As time went on, government leaders saw the Boundary society was changing, and the newspaper needed to adjust. So, they wrote a law that stated, “The Cherokee One Feather is hereby designated and recognized as the official publication of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for the instruction and information of the Cherokee community. It shall be the policy of the Cherokee One Feather to publish news articles and other materials and information judged by the editorial staff to have general value to the Cherokee community. Such news articles shall include a resume of Tribal Council business, Executive Committee, and Business Committee actions and action taken by other Tribal committees, boards, and enterprises”.

The journalists began to set about the task of delivering the news, good and bad, to the public, just as the founders and government leaders envisioned. The leadership of the Tribe was ok with the positive news, but negative news started making some of them uncomfortable. After all, bad news makes constituents unhappy, and unhappy constituents jeopardize votes.

Since the journalists are hired by a chain of authority within the government, they were under pressure to craft news about the Tribe in a positive light. A conflict of interest developed in that journalists adhere to a code of ethics that prohibits the manipulation of news, including omitting negative news. Journalists have a moral responsibility to be as even-handed and honest when providing information to the Cherokee community. Withholding information because it might negatively reflect on someone or something is a violation of the public trust for a news outlet.

When some tribal lawmakers saw the challenges facing tribal journalists, they introduced and passed a “Free Press Act,” providing some protections under law for the journalists charged with communicating news to the community. The language was added to the law which reads, “An Independent Free Press of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Free Press shall be independent of any undue influence and free of any political interest. The press must report without bias the activities of the tribe, the tribal government, and any news of interest to have informed citizens”.

At the same time, additional language was included which would allow the people to voice opinions through their community newspaper. “The One Feather shall be published weekly to report news, gatherings, and newspaper related issues as well as provide a forum for all views of the Cherokee people.”

The legislation reflected the progressive, forward-thinking mindset needed for a growing, intelligent tribal population. The people require an unbiased source for their reports on governmental activities and an avenue to communicate their thoughts to the community and their civic leaders. Still, there will always be a concern within our journalists and within the community that the news will be manipulated. The One Feather is still primarily funded through tribal dollars. The staff still reports to a chain of command and is bound by the governmental HR policy. The good news is that, for the most part, current leadership within the Tribe recognizes the importance of a free press, and the relationship of the paper with the executive and legislative branches of tribal government is good. The current stance of the administration and legislature is that the One Feather should remain free from government influence and recently passed legislation to add protective language to the Cherokee Code. That is the good news.

In 2015, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation adopted a Free Press Act, complete with a three-person editorial board and the tribally-owned newspaper. The Muscogee Nation has a membership of over 80,000 (their website says that enrollment number changes daily). They have a Principal Chief, Vice Chief (called a “Second Chief”) and 16 National Council members from eight districts or communities. There are two members for each district and decisions are made on a one person-one vote basis with no weighted vote.

In October 2015, the National Council passed the Free Press Act by a unanimous vote of 14-0. 13 of the 14 had co-sponsored the legislation. In a 2015 news article, Rebecca Landsberry says, “The council cited access to information and a need for an independent media with stronger objective reporting by the tribe’s media department as a finding of support for the amendment.”

The scope of assets of the paper includes the semi-monthly newspaper, weekly radio and television broadcasts and graphic design and print services. The new law brought the media operation out from under the tribe’s executive branch and give the press of the tribe a much-needed distance from government control.

The citizens of tribes who have been given the status of “domestically dependent nations,” which we call sovereignty, are sovereign to the extent that we may govern our community and property to the extent that the United States government allows. The federal government protects the rights of its people through a constitution. In that constitution, the government included the First Amendment, guaranteeing that the government would not interfere with free speech, including hindering the press from speaking to the people. These government officials knew the danger of dictatorial rule which is easier to accomplish when the people are uninformed because of manipulation or control of the information that reaches the public.

Without a press free from political influence, governmental transparency is hindered, and the people must rely on sources for information regarding their leadership that will be, many times, suspect or biased. Under government control, journalists are forced to manipulate information from the government to the people, either by ignoring information that might negatively reflect on the government or government officials or having to put a “spin” or misrepresent the facts (lie) to make a story comes out more positively for the government. With the United States, networks like National Public Radio and the Public Broadcast Service grew from the people’s understanding of the need for a free and independent access point for news and information. In the case of NPR, the government created law to consolidate and bring it into its current form.

Indian tribes have a unique challenge when it comes to free press. Because of the nature of media, to get an operation up and running that would provide enough income to sustain itself and employees, an independent owner would have to invest a significant amount of money to start up a media outlet. In many tribes, the expertise and drive are not there among the people to take up the job of documenting history.  So, tribes create their reporting agencies, just as our tribe did with the Cherokee One Feather back in 1965. The challenge with government established and funded media outlets are that to be operated effectively as a free and independent voice for the people; the government must enact a law to put a barrier between it and the news organizations. State-run news organizations have a poor history of disseminating unbiased, transparent, accurate information to the community they serve. For the government, the good news is any news that puts them in a positive light. The bad news is any news that may reflect poorly on one or more of the elected officials, tribal appointees, or actions taken by the government. And without protections in law, the government is free to manipulate the information that is disseminated to the people.

Three years after the enactment of the Muscogee Nation Free Press Act, the National Council and Principal Chief of the tribe have revoked their Free Press Act. The vote was taken on Nov. 8. The vote of the council members present resulted in a six to six tie and the decision fell to the Speaker (equivalent to our Chairman), who cast the deciding vote to dissolve the Free Press Act and the independence of the Mvskoke Media. Principal Chief James Floyd quickly signed the dissolution bill into law. The tribal press has now been put under the Principal Chief, and the staff has been assigned to the tribe’s commerce department. The speaker of their tribal council,

Lucian Tiger III issued a letter to the public claiming, “NCA 15-180 returns Mvskoke Media to the Executive Branch and will continue to operate as it did before. Nothing in NCA 18-180 disbands or restricts Mvskoke Media’s ability to act as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s media outlet despite attempts to brand legislation as restrictive or suppressive of freedom of speech”.

According to outside local media reports, the same day this letter was released, the Mvskoke Media’s staff were ordered to send the page files of the upcoming edition of the tribe’s newspaper to the Principal Chief for review. One of the proposed articles was about one of their tribal council members being arrested on “suspicion of driving under the influence.” Does that sound like the press, in this case, is operating as it did before and the people’s right to a free press has been protected? Maybe I am missing something.

One council representative, Pete Beaver, said that “it’s not personal against the newspaper staff, but there is too much negativity in the newspaper. There just needs to be more positive coverage”.

And so, the real reason seems to have surfaced. Negativity in the articles means potentially looking bad in front of the constituency, which likely means lost votes, and ultimately incumbents being unseated. It sounds like the truth is only to be reported if it reflects positively on the government.

What the Muscogee Nation does with their people and their law is their business. I am not a citizen of the Muscogee Nation. I am a citizen of the Eastern Band. The Muscogee decision matters to me because, for the past 16 years, I have been involved in some form of media for the Tribe. Much of that time, I have had a role in the decisions affecting the distribution of information to you. For the past five years, I have been privileged to serve in a managing position at your newspaper. In that time, we have tried to make a case for a free and independent press for the Tribe.

You see, outside media cannot demand information from the tribal government, as they can, by law, in the municipalities surrounding the Boundary. The outside press gets what the Tribe wants them to have. We do not have any entrepreneurs on the horizon that I am aware of, who could produce news that is unrestricted or unbiased. We do have a few folks on social media who want to provide the unfiltered scoop on issues of the day. The problem with those social media sites is that there is usually no vetting taking place on the information they post and typically there will be a political slant to the information they provide. In other words, the information released is based on the bias of the author, just like government releases. The Muscogee decision is a setback not only for their tribal members but for Indian Country in general. It sends a message that the people’s right to know must take a backseat to the public image of the government. It carries the chilling news that the Fourth Estate is more about entertainment of leadership than concern that the citizenry is adequately educated so that they may make informed decisions about the future; their future.

While we have forward-thinking leaders in our tribal government, we must find ways to ensure the permanence of freedom of speech and the press on the Boundary. While we currently have an Executive Office and Tribal Council that believes in an “arms-length” approach to the tribal newspaper, we are only one incident or one election away from government control. As we see with the Muscogee Nation, all it took was one quick council session to do away with Free Press protections and to convert a designated independent tribal media governed by an editorial board into a newsletter dictated by their executive office. And the only reason that was given publicly for taking such a dramatic, historic step? They didn’t see enough happy news. We must work together to put in place legislation that, as much as possible, ensures the permanence of a tribal news outlet free from political influence.

Just a few days after the decision was made and signed into law at the Muscogee Nation, I attempted to access the Mvskoke Media website. I got a message that the site can’t be reached, possibly blocked or taken down by the government.  So much for the statement of the innocuous nature of NCA 18-180.

Finally, I’ll share a portion of the press release provided by the Native American Journalists Association before the Muscogee Nation’s tribal council vote. “For more than three years, tribal leadership has supported a free press, and the sudden reversal of this policy is frightening. The Muscogee (Creek) National Council’s move should serve as a wake-up call to tribal reporters and nations that press freedom is an integral, Indigenous value that should be defended, preserved and encouraged throughout Indian Country.” NAJA asserts that press freedom is an essential element of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. An independent, Indigenous press serves the public interest by informing its readers about important news and cultural events, is a platform for diverse voices across the community, and reports on governmental affairs to hold those in power accountable to the people. The lack of journalistic freedom within tribal outlets is among the greatest threats to Indigenous media today, according to a survey of members and Native American media professionals conducted by NAJA earlier this year. More than 83 percent of respondents reported that stories on tribal government affairs go unreported sometimes, frequently or always, due to censorship”.