Freedom of the press is something most journalists in the United States fiercely protect and demand. It’s seen as crucial to keeping those with power in check. But in Indian Country, it gets more complicated.
There are more than 200 tribal newspapers in the country and only a handful have passed freedom of the press acts. Editors have had stories cut, websites shut down and staff threatened or fired for publishing stories tribal officials don’t approve of.
Invisible Nations producer Allison Herrera tells us about one Oklahoma media outlet that only recently signed a freedom of the press act, and how that might affect the lives of both Native and non-native Oklahomans.
Mvskoke Media’s offices are located in a warehouse building behind the One Fire Casino in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Their newspaper, radio and television show are all produced in-house with a small crew. When I visited, I found Mvskoke Nation News editor Sterling Cosper doing dishes - maybe not part of his official job duties but with so few people, he wears many hats.
Last fall, while covering a tribal council meeting, Cosper heard rumblings about a tribal council member allegedly getting bumped up the federally mandated housing waitlist. If true, it would be highly illegal - a hot story for any editor to jump on.
But, Cosper took a pause. He and his staff weren’t sure if they should pursue the story. The ink was still drying on a bill granting them free press protections, and they were nervous they could lose their jobs if tribal officials didn’t like what they read or saw.
“I think it’s a positive thing to police ourselves. It shows that basically we are self-determinate and we’re interested in handling our own affairs our way. Who better to educate the public on how we do things than to have journalists asking informed questions of the people in our tribe that know.”
They ultimately decided to run the housing story - it made it to the front page of the newspaper and aired on Native News Today. It was the first story of its kind from Mvskoke Media, and Sterling and his team were proud of it. But it caused a huge amount of stress among staff and reporters who felt their livelihoods might be in danger.
"It was probably one of the most stress-filled weeks of my life," says Jason Salsman, the multi-media producer of Native News Today, which also part of Mvskoke Media. “We’re all working on it together, but I was on camera with this guy. I was on camera with the chief. I was on camera with the housing director. So, everybody that’s talking is saying, ‘Is Jason going to get fired? Is he not going to get fired?’”
Before the housing story broke, members of the Mvskoke Creek tribe were asking Salsman and other staffers why some of their concerns weren’t showing up in the tribal newspaper but made it onto the pages of The Tulsa World, the local non-native paper. Salsman said their hands were tied.
But now, with freedom of the press, tribal media will be in a stronger position to report on their own issues.
“It gives them an authentic insight into what tribes are really about. Then I think they’re going to understand us better than someone out there that wouldn’t know. And sometimes a little bit of faulty coverage leads to maybe they make up your mind for you, ‘Oh they’re just a bunch of crooks and they’re letting it run rampant down there.’”
“That’s a challenge that native journalists face that mainstream media doesn’t," says Rebecca Landsberry, the interim executive director of the Native American Journalists Association.
She explains that publications are funded through the tribal government, and that creates a conflict of interest for reporters.
"It’s always at the forefront of your mind when approaching or covering a story. There are some journalists who break free and say, ‘I don’t care and it’s the citizens of this nation I want to be accountable to.’”
INSIDE CHANGES, OUTSIDE PERCEPTIONS
And it’s not just about funding - it’s an issue that runs as deep as the tribal constitution. With all the issues tribal governments face, freedom of the press is sometimes an afterthought.
Each tribal government’s constitution is unique and some are very new. For example, the Mvskoke Creek Nation’s was only created within the last 30 years. While some governments mention free speech, it’s not always explicit. Landsberry says that’s something her organization is working to change.
She also says it’s important for outside media to know why the tribe does what it does and the economic impact tribes have on the state. There are important stories to be told, beyond what’s covered in the mainstream press.
“We’re not just pow wows, gambling and diabetes,” says Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of the Osage News in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, one of the only other papers to have a free press act.
She says without free press, there would be abuse of power within the tribe. But there are deep-seeded tribal values that go against the desire to hold elected officials accountable. Towns and communities that newspapers cover are small and close-knit. There’s a feeling that some stories aren’t meant for publication—that a free press can essentially amount to airing your dirty laundry.
"There's a way to tell a tribe's story, or even some of the conflict's that you're going through, without ruining the tribe's image," says Brian Brashier, manager of KCNP Chickasaw Community Radio in Ada, Oklahoma.
Shaw Duty also sees it as a positive.
“What I am doing is for the betterment of our people. It’s not a good way to keep embezzlement silent. It’s not a good way to thumb your nose at our laws. It’s not a good way to keep secret that services aren’t being provided to the people that need them.”
A PROTECTED PRESS
Back at Mvskoke Media, Sterling Cosper and Jason Salsman are energized by their new press protections. They’re currently investigating the relationship between a golf course development and a holding company with ties to the tribe. What would have been essentially a PR piece before their new free press law, is now more in-depth and critical.
“It now becomes, ‘Let’s take a look at One Fire holding company. How much are we investing in this development? What’s our return on investment? Where’s the money going?' I always felt that I was cheating my profession before this."
Both the Osage News and Mvskoke Media are models for other tribal newspapers wanting to know how a free press is done.
They say they’ll still write human interest stories but that will be alongside critical coverage and lots of questions.
You can interact with Invisible Nations and provide your own experiences by texting the word "Press" to 405-759-8336.
- Read some of the housing stories Mvskoke Media did here.
- Read Shannon Shaw Duty's article that tested some of their free press laws.
- Below, hear Bryan Pollard, former editor of one of the oldest tribal newspapers The Cherokee Phoenix, talk about why it was created:
Invisible Nations is brought to you by KOSU and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.