Newsletter: Can a politically owned Indigenous news source be independent?

Indian Country Today is back in business thanks to the National Congress of American Indians. Can it maintain its journalistic integrity?

Indian Country Today was an independent Indigenous news outlet based in the U.S., whose website went dark last September after it fell victim to the same economics that devoured countless mainstream news publications in the past decade.

But the publication’s website flickered back to life earlier this year, recently publishing among other things a story about Canada’s purchase of a pipeline from Kinder Morgan. (Full disclosure: I freelanced for the Indian Country Today Media Network from 2010 to 2014.)

The venerable publication has dished out Indigenous news since 1981. With Indigenous issues increasingly gaining prominence, this kind of specialization, context and perspective is needed to make sense of the issues. ICT’s re-launch looks good and it reads well, but while stories appear under the same logo, its ownership has now changed.

ICT was previously owned by the Oneida Nation, but has now been taken over by the National Congress of American Indians, an Indigenous political entity in the U.S. And this deserves some critical thinking.

Indian Country Today TweetOf concern to me is the journalism involved because of the inherent conflict of a political body owning a media outlet. At the centre of that conflict: Journalism’s role in monitoring government and holding officials accountable for their actions, decisions and policies. That role is compromised if there is potential for officials or their staffs to interfere editorially and censor news.

Granted, ICT was previously owned by the Oneida Nation, but it supported itself through an advertising business model. (According to a recent story on ICT’s relaunch in the Columbia Journalism Review, that ad model ceased to be viable and the nation donated the publication to its new owners.)

ICT editor Mark Trahant briefly addressed editorial independence in his relaunch announcement on Feb. 28, 2018. In it, he acknowledged that ICT is now owned by the Congress, but promised the publication would “act independently.” He added, “We are creating a framework to ensure that.”

Trahant didn’t give any details about this framework, so I contacted him via private message on Twitter and asked what the framework looks like and how it would work.

“We are creating a separate legal entity,” he replied. “The NCAI’s nonprofit will appoint the editor but the journalistic operation will be up to me.”

It’s obviously too soon to say how exactly that framework will play out, but I’ll keep an eye on it in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the president of the Native American Journalists Association, Bryan Pollard, echoed some of my concerns when he was quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review story last month. “NCAI is a political institution, just like tribal governments,” Pollard told the Review. “There are inherent conflicts between government and a free press.”

“We have plenty of anecdotal experience among our membership at NAJA of tribal media professionals being fired or forced out of their jobs by tribal leaders who disagreed with their reporting,” he added.

Here at The Discourse, as well as at other mainstream news outlets I’ve worked at, I’ve never had a story politically interfered with. I couldn’t imagine if apparatchiks from the mayor’s office, provincial legislature and parliament got to politically vet my stories before publication. For starters, the story would never publish on time. Moreover, readers wouldn’t be getting the truth about issues that they have the right to know about, and tough questions would likely be toned down at best.

There is precedent that ICT could look to as models for political bodies owning news outlets. In Canada, as the public broadcaster, CBC is a Crown corporation that receives federal funding. But there is a clear separation between its board of directors and the editorial content it produces. CBC isn’t without its challenges, but political interference in newsrooms aren’t among them.

Indigenous issues are more prominent on the public agenda today than they have been historically. It’s important therefore for journalists covering Indigenous issues to document, verify and publish fair and balanced analysis of these issues to better understand their impact. And it’s also important for non-Indigenous people to get accurate news about Indigenous issues so they better understand Indigenous people. In other words, it’s important for journalists to continue to search for and tell the truth — not a varnished version of it.

I hope that ICT’s new owners understand what they have, how important it is and why they need to leave its editorial direction and operation alone. The litmus test will come when ICT tries to publish a piece that’s critical of the Congress or one of its allies. Because once journalistic integrity has been compromised it can very rarely be recovered.

First Nations housing

As part of the First Nations housing investigation I’m presently involved with, I previously wrote about the effort by a B.C. group to take back jurisdiction over First Nations housing on and off reserve.

But this effort isn’t completely without precedent. B.C.’s new treaty First Nations have jurisdiction over their own housing by virtue of their treaties with the federal and provincial governments.

In the coming months, I’m going to be visiting some of these First Nations to find out what their jurisdiction over housing looks like and how it works. I’ll be documenting their achievements, and also their challenges.

Do you think a news outlet owned by a political body can be independent enough to deliver fair and balanced news? Contact me via Facebook, Twitter or email. Finally, if you enjoyed reading this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe.[end]

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