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'Bad Press' follows one tribal news outlet's fight to survive and inform its people

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's probably no surprise that we here at NPR are pretty fond of the idea of a free press. After all, First Amendment protections are what allow us to bring you the news and information that you rely on. And no, this is not a pledge drive. It's a discussion about a new documentary that asks the question, how far would you go to protect the news?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BAD PRESS")

ANGEL ELLIS: Here I am, reporting on news topics that maybe don't show my tribe in the best light.

Our tribal government...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Roll call, please.

ELLIS: ...Wasn't prepared for hungry journalists...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, Jerrad, what you got?

ELLIS: ...Snooping around and doing the news.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Three top officials were arrested. The word embezzlement comes to mind.

ELLIS: But it's all the Muscogee Creek people have as far as source of news, and someone's got to do it.

RASCOE: "Bad Press" follows journalist Angel Ellis and her colleagues as they try to inform the citizens of Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, all the while enduring threats from public officials and the repeal of a law meant to protect journalists. Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler directed the film, and they join us now. Thank you for being with us.

REBECCA LANDSBERRY-BAKER: Thank you so much for having us on the show.

JOE PEELER: Yeah, thanks, Ayesha. Very exciting.

RASCOE: Let's start, you know, at the beginning. Rebecca, you're the director of this film, and you're a Muscogee Creek journalist yourself. So how did this story first touch you?

LANDSBERRY-BAKER: Yeah. So this is a very personal story for me as a Muscogee Creek citizen. I actually worked at the - what was then the Muscogee Nation News for our tribe's newspaper fresh out of journalism school and worked with a lot of our subjects and participants in the film, including Jerrad Moore and Jason Salzman (ph), Sterling Cosper (ph). And then I actually recruited our main participant, Angel Ellis, who's the star of our film, to the newsroom back when I was there.

And so, you know, I had known about the challenges and the joys and the nuances of, you know, covering our own very tight-knit community there in Okmulgee, Okla., which is where I was born and raised. And so also, I serve as the executive director of the Indigenous Journalist Association. And, you know, in my work with IJA, I've seen many times where press freedom is really squashed by tribes. And so I thought, I can't let this, you know, happen in my own, you know, tribal nation.

RASCOE: Well, Joe, why is free press - and you get into this in the documentary, but a lot of people won't know - why is free press such an issue in Indian country?

PEELER: Only 5 out of 574 federally recognized tribes have free press laws on the books. And that essentially is because they're all sovereign nations, and so they create their own laws and constitutions. And when we started filming in early 2019, there were only five that had the free press laws on the books. And then with the repeal of the free press law at the Muscogee Nation, that dropped down to four.

RASCOE: When the free press law was repealed, what did that mean for Muscogee media?

LANDSBERRY-BAKER: That moved the editorial control from the editor and the independent editorial board to the principal chief and his appointees. So at that time, it was the secretary of the nation, Eli McIntosh. So then he became the editor of the Muscogee Nation News and all of the Muscogee media outlets, and that is certainly not his background. He's not a trained journalist. He's not an editor.

RASCOE: I wonder, Joe, did you have any thoughts or - I don't know if you have, like, a journalism background, but this idea of having to report on a community that may be misunderstood or may have stereotypes and things of that nature, the pressures to put forward a pretty picture, a positive narrative at all times. I guess, what did you think about that? It seemed like that's what Angel and other people in the documentary were grappling with.

PEELER: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that Angel likes to bring up is covering the Muscogee National Council is like covering the Senate if they're all your cousins. So it's people that, if there is dirty laundry to be aired, you're probably going to see them in the supermarket. Your kids are going to be friends with their kids. It's a very tight-knit community.

And also, you know, I think being there as an outsider, you just see that there's a real concern for the way that outside media treats the tribe, justifiably so, and also a need to put the best foot forward for the federal government so the federal government doesn't kind of interfere with the tribe's sovereign business, right? And so all of this kind of plays in to this clash at the heart of what Muscogee media and Angel particularly are trying to report on. And I think her, like, ethos comes from a place of love for the tribe and passion for her fellow citizens. In her mind, she's just trying to give back to the tribe in any way that she can, kind of whether they like it or not.

RASCOE: Now, we don't want to give away too much, but at one point after the repeal of the law, Angel Ellis goes to a freelance journalist for help on reporting about the effort to reinstate free press law through a constitutional referendum. And this is what the freelance journalist told Angel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BAD PRESS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You know, I don't do Phil Collins "Land Of Confusion" when it comes to ethics. How do you objectively cover a free press constitutional amendment?

RASCOE: I think that this is - this issue - is it OK for journalists to take a side of freedom of the press? You're covering an issue that has effect on your very job. Do you think that this film answers that question?

PEELER: Does it answer it? I'm not sure if it answers it, but it's certainly an interesting spot that Angel's put in. And in some ways, I see the film as Angel transitioning from journalist to activist. And I think internally at Muscogee media, the way that they would kind of approach that question is that freedom of press is the one topic that you get carte blanche to advocate for because I think they're trying to advocate just to get back to neutral.

They're trying to advocate just to be able to do their jobs and do it in, like, a kind of a neutral, very balanced, journalistic way. But when that's threatened and they're effectively put under the control of the executive branch of the tribe, then they have to shift and advocate, and they're in this uncomfortable position. I don't think any of them wanted to be in that position.

LANDSBERRY-BAKER: Yeah. I'm kind of with you. I don't know if there's a, you know, a solid answer, but I absolutely think that it's important for journalists, whatever community they're covering, to be able to do their jobs without fear of repercussion from the government. And I think it is 100% right that journalists and reporters should be able to feel secure in their job security. I mean, that's where you're going to get the best journalism from.

If you have a reporter who's scared of what they're, you know, writing that is going to get them fired, like, you know, the position that Angel was formerly in - and that actually happened to her - then you're not going to get the full story. You're going to get this biased, you know, news and information. It's not going to be the full picture. And that's what the citizens deserve, and it's what they need. And so I think the ability to advocate for yourself as a journalist, to tell the full truth and share the entire story - the good, the bad and the fugly (ph), as Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton would say - I think that's so, so important to our storytelling process and who we are as journalists.

RASCOE: That's Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler. Their new documentary is called "Bad Press." Thank you both for speaking with us.

LANDSBERRY-BAKER: Thank you. (Non-English language spoken).

PEELER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.