AJR  Columns :     TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   December 1996

A Struggle: Will Tribal Journalists Be Free?   

The power of the purse is hard to overcome.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Money and power corrupt. Independent voices in the Native American press may now be threatened more by tribal prosperity and the arrogance of newly powerful tribal leaders than they were in the past by poverty.

Advertising and circulation revenues have seldom been sufficient to support Native American journalism. Tribal subsidies fill the gap or provide virtually all the funds.

This has been so from the beginning. And the beginning had a tragic ending. Elias Boudinot, who founded the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828 on behalf of a tribe that then was largely in the South, was enmeshed in tribal politics, just as most of his newspaper counterparts in the mainstream press then were allied with political parties. More about him later.

Many American Indian publications, the New York Times recently reported, are thriving because of new tribal wealth coming from legal gambling, the sale of natural resources and cash settlements from land disputes. Native American journalists who work for tribal newspapers and for the mainstream press are very worried about the use of this money to further intimidate, demean and corrupt the publications they support.

It is natural enough for tribal politicians to think they deserve a pass from media they pay for. A county commissioner anywhere might think the same thing about a subsidized county paper.

The dilemma for the journalists, whose overall number and stature have grown greatly in recent years, is how to stand up to the power and still publish or broadcast. Truly independent financial status seems a very distant goal.

The weekly Navajo Times, with 16,800 circulation and a primary circulation area including 160,000 people in the Navajo Nation of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, is the center of attention in this struggle. "I'm fighting a constant battle here," Editor Tom Arviso Jr. was quoted by the Times as saying.

Some tribal leaderships, including his, take the view that anything critical published about them is an attack upon the tribe. The difference between them and a lot of other public officials is that they control the purse of the press.

The best defense for the gutsy journalists who are on this firing line consists of their own integrity, some special attention from the rest of us in the field, and stirrings of greater openness and real democracy in some of the more encrusted tribal organizations.

The Native American Journalists Association, whose importance has been growing rapidly, needs our help any time it leads the fight for more independence.

Back to "Buck" Boudinot, a true pioneer of American journalism with his bilingual Cherokee Phoenix in Georgia. It sought to quickly bring greater literacy – or bilingual ability – to the beleaguered Cherokees and to prevent deportation to the West.

When he and some other leaders finally gave in to demands that the Cherokees move and signed a removal treaty against the objections of most of the tribe, they apparently acted for some good and some bad reasons. They were accused of selling out. Four years later, on the same day in 1839, three of them were assassinated.