COMMENTARY: Pandering, blackmail, intimidation, and yellow journalism

by Aug 14, 2019OPINIONS





“Pandering is the act of expressing one’s views in accordance with the likes of a group to which one is attempting to appeal. The term is most notably associated with politics. In pandering, the views one is expressing are merely for the purpose of drawing support up to and including votes and do not necessarily reflect one’s personal values.

“Blackmail is an act of coercion using the threat of revealing or publicizing either substantially true or false, and often damaging, information about a person or people, to the public, family members, or associates unless certain demands are met. It may involve using threats of physical, mental or emotional harm, or of criminal prosecution, against the victim or someone close to the victim. It is normally carried out for personal gain, most commonly of position, money, or property.

“Intimidation (also called cowing) is intentional behavior that ‘would cause a person of ordinary sensibilities’ to fear injury or harm. It is not necessary to prove that the behavior was so violent as to cause terror or that the victim was actually frightened. 

“Yellow journalism and the yellow press are American terms for journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism.” (Wikipedia)

We are closing in on the General Election for our tribal leadership for the next two to four years. As with any election, tribal or otherwise, there are red flags to watch for when getting and digesting material to make a sound decision before connecting the arrow on your ballots. 

Careful consideration of any important decision is critical to making good choices. Information needs meditation. One learned colleague of mine refers to the kind of examination required for the understanding of valuable information as “chewing the cud.” To thoroughly digest their food, cows do this. The “cud” that the cow chews is the food it intends to digest. They will chew their food, swallow it down, then burp it back up to chew it a second time. It is only in this way that the cow may get the best benefit of the food it eats and maintain proper digestion. In other words, they cannot be healthy unless their cud is thoroughly chewed. Similarly, it will likely take more than a single review of information before we understand the data enough to make an intelligent and unambiguous decision, then decide the right course of action. Keeping in mind that information may come in the form of some action, we also must evaluate actions and intentions. 

I won’t regurgitate (pardon the crude pun) the definitions that I outline above but ask that you use them as a reference when I mention one or more of the examples that will follow. Also, I am speaking to our immediate decision-making in a tribal election, but I am not picking on anyone or anything exclusively. I think these behaviors are part of many contests throughout Indian Country, the U.S., and the world. And, I will have to give an opinion on what others have told me without the benefit of firsthand knowledge, which is why you see it in a commentary and not a news story. Unfortunately, even purported experts get confused about the difference between opinion and fact. 

While our Cherokee Code does not address specifically the problems of pandering, bribery, and intimidation, the Charter and Governing Document invites elected officials to swear that “(They) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that (they) will faithfully swear (or affirm) that (they) have not obtained (their) election or appointment to Tribal office by bribery or any undue or unlawful means or fraud,”. 

This oath indicates to me that our forefathers intended that our leaders should not be chosen by promises of instant gratification, or threats of reprisal, but on the merits of their education, experience and intent to “conduct (themselves) as in (their) judgment shall appear most conducive to the interest and prosperity of the Eastern Band of Cherokees”. 

What that means to you and me as tribal voters is that we should not see candidates who come to our door to offer money or favors for our votes. The mindset of the candidates and the community should be the same; that an individual’s vote should be based on what a candidate can do for the majority, not the self nor individual. A candidate will be elected to serve all the people; not a handful; not the one. I have not experienced it, but I certainly have friends in the Tribe who have been offered $20 bills for their votes, among other things. You might ask what is the harm if you take it? Besides assisting the candidate in breaking his/her oath of not doing anything “undue” and potentially “unlawful” in their obtaining an elected seat, you would also be putting someone in that seat who respects your vote so little that he/she is willing to buy it for the price of a meal at Selu. 

I recently had someone come to my office and tell me that a candidate had threatened them. The language is something that I had heard before. This person said, “Voting should be free speech. If you’re a candidate and you think that I didn’t vote for you, you shouldn’t call me and say, ‘I know you’re not supporting me. I don’t need you and your family’s vote anyway. I can win without you’. People who are looking to be elected to office shouldn’t hold it against somebody for not voting for them. They represent the whole community.” 

This person didn’t want to name a candidate, only to communicate that it is wrong for candidates to use intimidation to sway voters. Again, what does it say about a candidate if they participate in intimidation or bribery to win a tribally-elected seat?

Rumors are circulating, as they have in a previous election, that a list of tribal employees has been created by one or more candidates detailing who they purportedly intend to target for termination if elected or re-elected. No one has taken ownership for authoring such a list or lists, including the ones who have been accused of creating lists. The lists or the rumor of lists was designed to instill fear in some way. It stretches the imagination to think that candidates would create such lists and stretches it even further to think that candidates would absent-mindedly allow that to be leaked to the public. The possibilities of where these rumors originate are endless, including the chance that it is a counter-campaign tactic from someone not affiliated with any campaign directly. We didn’t find out in the previous election, and we are not likely to know where anonymously-created and -released lists are generated. We do know that, without substantiation, that we would be foolish to give credence to something that has no foundation in verifiable fact. 

At the One Feather, we adhere as strictly as possible to a specifically drawn out code of ethics. I won’t rehash previous commentaries. Hopefully, by now, you know the sources of our code. They should apply to all journalists and all media. But, we have seen time and time again how not all media interpret their ethical responsibility in the same way as the One Feather. In June, just before the Primary Election, a nationally-syndicated article came out identifying a Tribal Council candidate as a person grouped with other people throughout Indian Country who had been convicted of inappropriate behavior with a minor or minors. The problem with the article is that this individual was the only target of the report which had not been disciplined, arrested, nor convicted of any of the allegations against him because there was no documented evidence to support taking actions and none have publicly been announced to date. The author of the article admitted that no documentable incident had been found, but it was “suspected” by some. When the One Feather looked into those allegations, no documentation was available from any of the entities that the candidate had worked for or was supposedly a subject of investigation.

Similarly, a recent local news article rehashed the claims made in the national story.   And, again, that article was released just as early voting for the General Election has started on the Qualla Boundary. There are more unsubstantiated claims in the article and still no evidence of wrongdoing through any work or investigative agency reports. Based on what has been presented in these two “articles,” I could presume that the candidate did something. Then again, I could also conclude that the candidate did nothing wrong based on the same two articles. And, as long as I suppose without fact, I have to wonder about the timing of the release of these two articles; one just before our Primary Election and one just as we begin our General Election process. When journalists speculate in an article, in my opinion, it is no longer an article. It is a commentary. It is an opinion piece. And there is nothing wrong with commentary; just don’t pass it off as a factual, unbiased article.

The differences can be subtle, and you must “chew the cud” sometimes to see it. Yellow journalism is a term that is usually reserved for National Enquirer stories, but now this type of account has started showing up in places you may have thought it never would. In a rush to get the story out, a regional television station reported on their social media that the Tribe had lost its bid to get into sports betting because the state voted it down. After the Principal Chief notified them, the station pulled their “article” down and did the homework they should have done in the first place. The bill that was defeated was not the one affecting tribal sports betting, but another bill on gaming having nothing to do with the Tribe. It was such a juicy, sensational story that some editor or journalist just couldn’t resist the urge to be the first to tell it. They violated their ethical responsibility to verify, and that resulted in false information being distributed to the regional public. 

By now, some of you have already made your decision and cast your vote. Still others of you will go between now and Sept. 5. If you are voting, I want to be one of the first to thank you for engaging in the process. We need more like you. We have a good field of candidates from which to select. You and I, and all the others who come out to vote will elect leadership for the next two to four years of the Tribe’s history. Our ancestors did not settle in this land and work to secure this home for the EBCI to see us either sit idly by or throw our vote away for a $20 bill (which still features Andrew Jackson on its face) or a bucket of chicken. Chew the cud, be an informed voter, and choose wisely.