COMMENTARY: Tribe needs to allow media access, all access

by Nov 26, 2018OPINIONS





People often make the mistake of assuming that government control of the media consists solely of trying to censor the paper. It’s much more than that, and they often do it to the private media as well, and tribal governments aren’t the only one who engage in these tactics.

They’ll get denied access to public information. They’ll get shut out of what should be public meetings, even with these things being written into tribal law. With the laws, one big problem presents itself, penalties, particularly the lack thereof. Without some kind of sanction, they’re essentially paper tigers.

This now brings us to the move by Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke in the April session of Tribal Council to prohibit all non-tribal media from reporting from the Council Chambers. The move was seconded by Birdtown Rep. Albert Rose. It passed with only one opposing vote by those present, Painttown Rep. Lisa Taylor.

The move appeared after Waynesville’s Smoky Mountain News attributed a statement to Saunooke that she found unflattering. According to that paper, Saunooke said in an email to Smoky Mountain News Reporter Holly Kays, “U (sic) made me sound ignorant with the statement. I’m sure it was not phrased that way.”

If that paper erred in its reporting, something it denies, there are better ways Saunooke could’ve addressed it. Complaints to the publisher, letters, guest columns are all better reactions. If Saunooke had simply admonished the writer and paper and left it at that, there wouldn’t be much to say about it. Unfortunately, the result damaged both tribal government and the private press and caught tribal members in the cross fire.

Tribal Council didn’t consider the collateral damage of this move. It didn’t consider the hit to our credibility. The Cherokee One Feather’s journalistic reputation consistently rests on shaky ground due to its tribal funding and ownership, alone. While it does have a free press act, which Council just strengthened, removing and prohibiting non-tribal reporters sends a message that Council only wants the One Feather in the chambers because its content can be controlled. Intentional or not, that’s the message it sent. Market research conducted years ago says that many people feel that the only coverage the paper gives of Tribal Council is positive, and this doesn’t help with that criticism.

The argument that Kays and other non-tribal reporters can still cover sessions, which are broadcast online, from outside the chambers is a band-aid fix. They’ll miss things that occur inside the chambers. That suggestion is similar to the Trump administration arguing that CNN’s Jim Acosta can still cover the White House from the White House lawn after having revoked his credentials.

Where does this motion put tribal members who work for non-tribal media? There are at least two EBCI tribal members who work for non-tribal media who are being excluded from the Council chambers.

Maleaha Brings Plenty writes for The Daily Iowan (Iowa City, Iowa), and her family still resides in Cherokee, in fact her father, Scott Brings Plenty, is one of the One Feather’s staff writers. Should she decide to come home and attend a session to cover a Council session for the paper (for whatever reason), she’s prohibited from being in the chambers.

There’s award-winning photojournalist Travis Long, a tribal member who works for Raleigh’s News & Observer. This ban applies to him too. It’s not too inconceivable that Long could head to Cherokee to cover something, which would require him being present in the Council chambers. He still maintains ties here, and his parents own a farm near Murphy.

These are two tribal constituents prohibited from attending a Council session in the chambers. Had this ban been in place when the Cherokee County casino was being put to a vote, I would’ve been prohibited from being there too. I was working for the Cherokee Scout (Murphy) and Andrews Journal at the time.

Let’s not simply make an exception for tribal members who work for other media. That puts their employers in the awkward position of having to assign the “Indian” in the newsroom to write certain stories, and what do they do if that writer has a conflict?

This appears to be about Kays and the Smoky Mountain News. No one is required to like that paper, or ours for that matter. But they, or any news outlet, should be allowed access to the Council Chambers. Whether it’s us, them, WLOS or Associated Press, we’re all working for the Tribe’s constituents. That’s who it’s all about, and this ban does those constituents a huge disservice. In comparison, some people prefer getting their news from CNN. Some prefer Fox News. Some prefer the New York Times. Some prefer National Review. Some prefer the Smoky Mountain News to the One Feather. We all should be given access to report on tribal government.

Some will argue that this move is justified. It isn’t. Tribal Council has cut off a finger because of a hangnail. Its recent move to strengthen the tribe’s free press law is appreciated, but this ban remains a stain on a free press. If Tribal Council truly wants to honor a free press, this move needs to be reversed, and our Council Chambers need to be open to everyone, even if we don’t like what they have to say. When it comes to following the examples of presidents’ handling of media, think and act more like Reagan, Clinton, Obama and much less like Trump and Nixon.