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Mar. 1 2010 - 10:12 am | 864 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

A congressional bias against certain press

I was reading an interview with Ana Marie Cox, of Wonkette fame, the other day. Before losing her job with the shuttered Air America, she said she had a difficult time getting a congressional press pass because the people in Congress who dole out that special access “considered Air America to be too close to advocacy.”

She made the concurrent point that Fox News gets in, no problem, and so does The New York Post.

I’ve also faced difficulty getting a congressional press pass as a Washington staff reporter for Indian Country Today. Not because the powers that be say we’re advocacy-oriented, but because they flat out equate tribes as foreign governments and/or lobbyists. No exceptions. Because the paper I work for is owned by a company that’s owned by a tribe, somehow that means our journalism is tainted. No matter our principles, no matter our aim for truth and accuracy, no matter our awards — there’s something wrong with us.

The U.S. Senate Periodical Press Gallery says those are the rules. But what the situation really boils down to is a U.S. government bias against tribes. The same U.S. government that strives to protect the 1st Amendment; that holds freedom of the press up as an important symbol of our country’s greatness; that likes to say it has a special relationship with tribes. If special means unfair, then that’s news to me.

It’s the same U.S. government, too, that has previously approved congressional credentials for many foreign news services, including China’s Xinhua News Agency.

I’ve been told our newspaper could contact Congress to request a special hearing on whether we should get a pass. The decision to go down that complicated route lies above my pay-grade, but I can say this:  somehow “free press” seems like less of an American right when the U.S. government has to hold a special session of Congress to approve it. And, if for some reason a tribal newspaper were to be denied, what then? Would a precedent be set that could harm our coverage even further?

Don’t you worry, I’m still usually able to get in the doors I need to get in, but I’m not afforded an official pass because tribal newspapers are treated differently. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tribal publications, so it’s a big travesty that reaches way beyond Indian Country Today. This, even at a time when newbie bloggers can get congressional passes, even White House passes – surely without ever having to request a special session of Congress.

When I started reporting for Inside Higher Ed in 2005, the online publication, brand new at the time, untested, unproven, had little problem securing congressional press passes for its team of young reporters.

Even the most seasoned Indian reporters face similar obstacles when working for Indian-owned newspapers. Mark Trahant, a citizen of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and former editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, dealt with the issue years ago when he worked for tribal newspapers. It was never resolved.

“[I] was told at the time I couldn’t because all of my clients — I was freelancing — were publications owned by governments, tribal newspapers,” Trahant e-mailed me recently.

So, what’s to be done? As is so often the case with tribal issues, when injustices surface, very few take notice. Sometimes that’s because Indian issues are specific, so the majority doesn’t recognize their importance.

But this issue is not an Indian-only one. It deals with a basic tenet of all our freedom and liberty. If it can happen to one group of Americans, what’s to stop the power holders from making rules that say African-American, Hispanic, gay, women, or some other kind of press should be granted limited access? Nothing is to stop it. It’s a scary thought. Let’s work to never make it a reality.

The Senate Periodical Press Gallery can be reached at 202-224-0265.


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  1. collapse expand

    “Not because the powers that be say we’re advocacy-oriented, but because they flat out equate tribes as foreign governments and/or lobbyists. No exceptions.” Wait a minute. Aren’t Native American tribes always trying to be seen as sovereign nations with exceptions to all kinds of US laws, with the ability to govern themselves with their own police force, education, etc.? Why wouldn’t Congress treat you like a journalist from a foreign country?

    • collapse expand

      Because tribes aren’t foreign countries, Paul. They are domestic sovereign nations. The special relationship tribes have with the U.S. government under the Constitution does not mean they are foreign countries. That the rule makers who oversee congressional press passes think tribes are foreign countries is quite telling. And that those rule makers are circumventing 1st Amendment rights for tribal newspapers in the U.S. is just a shame. Even more eye-opening: if a non-Indian-owned company were to open a tribal newspaper, it could hypothetically get press passes without problem, yet a tribe that opens a business to practice sound journalism is punished by being treated in a biased way.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Women’s eNews could not get a congressional press pass either. The excuse with us is that we are nonprofit. At one point, Women’s eNews was asked to deliver the names of all of our donors. We demurred but noted that the foundations that supported us were listed at the bottom of every e-mail. Not good enough. I thought it was bias against women, but maybe it is one of those one-size-fits-all biases–only the insiders need apply.

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    About Me

    I'm a staff reporter for Indian Country Today. I've written for American Indian Report, News from Indian Country, Politics, High Country News, Cultural Survival Quarterly, The New York Sun, The New York Times, The Guardian, and other places. I sometimes appear on NPR to discuss Indian and political issues. I'm a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I live in metro Washington, D.C. E-mail me: robertcap@gmail.com Twitter: RobCapriccioso

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