COMMENTARY: Welcome back off-Boundary media!

by Feb 7, 2020OPINIONS





Today (Feb. 5) during Reports to Council, the Tribal Council seemed to come to an understanding concerning a year-long plus media “ban” of all media except for Cherokee One Feather staff in the Council Chambers during sessions. 

The ban, while extending to all media-radio, television, and internet was the result of a confrontation between a reporter from the Smoky Mountain News and a Tribal Council representative. The Council representative asserted that they were misquoted, and the reporter asserted that the quotation was accurate. As the situation was discussed, a misunderstanding is the best way to describe the incident. The misunderstanding resulted in off-Boundary media being relegated to the waiting room outside the Council Chambers. Typically, this meant primarily the Smoky Mountain News reporter was relegated to the waiting room for most sessions (Council would grant “special permission” when there was a positive media event taking place in the Chambers). To be precise, there was also discussion by more than one Tribal Council representative and the Executive Office on some inaccuracies being reported by outside media which may have contributed to the ban discussion. 

It seemed that the Council might be ready to allow a former practice to replace the ban. Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha said that a proper and respectable practice would be for any media to ask permission to be in Chambers during sessions. So, most of the Council seemed to be in favor of this course of action. 

During the conversation, a few Council representatives engaged in some comparison assumption. They indicated that “some they talked to” wanted to know why the One Feather didn’t cover the same stories that say, the Smoky Mountain News, reports. The answer is that we do not cover news in the same way or with the same staff.  We operate under a different leadership standard and ethic. I am not assessing good or bad, right or wrong; just acknowledging the differences. For 55-plus years, the One Feather has been reporting from and for the community. There are stories that the Smoky Mountain News covers about our community that we do not and there are stories that the Cherokee One Feather covers in our community that the Smoky Mountain News does not. 

To me, that is the importance of having multiple media outlets covering the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. While we have two of the best writers and journalists in the business working for us, they cannot possibly cover all the goings-on on the Boundary and those off the Boundary. And, when we in the media do cover the same story, it is a positive thing that we see and report the same facts from different perspectives. 

As journalists, we are free speech and free press advocates. To the best of our ability, we want to provide information and access to information. The government, therefore, the information, belongs to the people of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. When the section of Chapter 75 of the Cherokee Code was established regarding a free press, they limited the protection of the press to “tribal media.”

The One Feather staff has always been courteous in the execution of its duties. We somehow got lumped into a catch-all statement that when seating is limited in the Chamber, that media neglects to step outside so that elders may have seats in Chambers. As I edge ever more closely to retirement, I surely appreciate the sentiment. But, I would submit that any able-bodied person who sees an elderly or handicapped person in need of a seat in the Chamber ethically should consider offering up their seat. I know the staff of the One Feather and can tell you that they all respect our elders and citizens of this community. Singling out the media as somehow particularly insensitive to the needs of our elders is misleading, to say the least. 

There was discussion of revising the Free Press Act in Chapter 75, bringing more transparency through clear media and free speech rights to include all media. While this is a huge step in the right direction, equal attention needs to be given to the antiquated processes for the release of public documents and a lack of a structured public information officer system. In some cases, decision makers simply don’t acknowledge receipt of a request as a reason for not providing requested documents. The press and citizenry should not be kept in the dark, passed over, or delayed because of structural deficiencies and outdated policies. An informed citizenry is an essential part of representative government. 

I hope that if any revisiting of the Free Press Act takes place, that the One Feather Editorial Board, community, and knowledgeable members of press in Indian Country are tapped as resources for sound law with language that protects as well as sets boundaries for ethical coverage and documentation of Eastern Band history. Not because I lack confidence in our leadership, but because I know that they, along with the rest of the citizenry, want the best solutions based on the best information and expertise. 

I want to thank him for and wholeheartedly concur with a remark made by Big Cove Representative Perry Shell. He said he would like to see articles stick to the facts and not be filled with journalist opinion. I have promoted that philosophy at the One Feather since my arrival eight years ago. Readers need both opinion pieces and factual articles, but they do not need, and it is not beneficial for them to receive it, together in an article that does not distinguish between fact and opinion. Other than editorial, commentary, opinion letters, and, to some extent, sports and entertainment articles, our articles are as free from writer pundit commentary and skewing as possible. 

We cover the Qualla Boundary and surrounding area in the way we think will provide the Tribe with the information they need and in accordance with the charge that the people give to the One Feather via Chapter 75 of the Cherokee Code. We are mindful of the sensitivities of our community because we live and work in the community. It is our primary focus. We don’t just cover the big stories. We don’t just cover the happy stories. We cover the stories of and for the Cherokee people. That is why you will not see the season’s Cherokee high school sports coverage in any other publication except when they win a championship (except for a blurb on WLOS – thank you Stan). You will not see stories where the facts have not been substantiated in the One Feather either. 

When I was in the tourism department, it used to be a running criticism of outside media that they only paid attention to us (the Eastern Band) when there was a suspicious death, catastrophic incident, or a scandal on the Boundary. And while that is slowly changing, I think primarily because of the economic impact we have on the region, we will still not see the coverage from outside media that would inform members of the tribe day to day. Even so, having the outside media does help tribal members get a more complete picture of life on and off the Boundary. 

Journalists will continue to disagree on ethics and slants. It’s not a bad thing. It shows that we have commitment and passion for what we do. Even though I may disagree publicly with an editorial decision (some media professionals may disagree with mine), I still value and respect those professional history documenters called journalists. And whether on-Boundary media or off, we all play a role in keeping the people informed. So, welcome back to the Chambers off-Boundary media. And, to all our Tribal Council representatives, thank you for your wisdom and insight in this decision. I respect both those for and against. And because the representatives on both sides of the issue on Council spoke, we have a better understanding of what occurred to cause the Council action and how better to work with Council in the future to provide better service to the Tribal community and region.