The Media Today

Q&A: Angel Ellis on Bad Press

January 31, 2024
Angel Ellis. Credit: Bad Press / Tyler Graim.

In 2018, the national council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma—the fourth-largest Native American tribe in the US—repealed its free press act. The act, passed in 2015, protected the Nation’s independent media, Mvskoke Media, which had closely investigated wrongdoing in the tribal government. The council evidently decided the paper was looking too closely—and that it focused too much on negative news. The bill repealing the free press act “dissolves the outlet’s editorial board which has served as an intermediary between government officials and reporters, places the Department of Commerce in charge of approving content, and puts Mvskoke reporters under the nation’s employee policies, which include the right to monitor employees’ computer systems, chat groups, and emails,” Tristan Ahtone reported for CJR at the time. Although the US Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, tribal nations have their own constitutions and laws. 

Enter Angel Ellis, then a reporter for Mvskoke Media, who, alongside her colleagues, decided that the repeal could not stand. In 2011, Ellis had uncovered embezzlement in the tribal government, winning her an award, from the Native American Journalists Association, and a warning—from the council, for insubordination. (She has also covered Indigenous issues for mainstream publications.) For three years following the repeal, Ellis lobbied lawmakers, raised awareness, and advocated door-to-door across the Nation, drumming up support for press freedom to be enshrined in its constitution. In September 2021, the Nation voted yes. 

Rebecca Landsberry-Baker was the editor of Mvskoke Media from 2008 to 2013, and was on the board when it was dissolved. “I really felt the weight of that moment,” she told The Guardian. She decided to document the fight to do something. The result was Bad Press, a documentary, codirected with Joe Peeler, that came out last year and has been playing the film festival circuit in the US, Canada, and Europe for the past few months, winning a Special Jury Award for Freedom of Expression at Sundance. When I saw the film at the Atlantic Festival in September, I found it to be a compelling watch, with the suspenseful pace of a thriller, making what might otherwise be dry—a constitutional amendment—look, sound, and feel like a blockbuster.  

Ellis—straight-shooting, often swearing—is the central character, and rightfully so. (She refers to successfully amending her Nation’s constitution as a “democracy boner.”) Through her eyes, and in Peeler’s and Landsberry-Baker’s deft hands, we come to understand the history of journalism in tribal nations. (Of 574 Indian nations in the US, only five have laws guaranteeing freedom of the press.) The film also raises important questions for journalism at large: the specter of local news deserts and the sustainability of community news; the battles marginalized journalists face when writing about their communities, and the choice they face between telling the truth, however unsavory, and feeding harmful stereotypes; the objectivity of the media in covering press freedom when it is invested in a particular result; and, perhaps most important, why anyone outside the Muscogee Nation should care at all. As the film rolled out, I spoke with Ellis. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

AR: In the documentary, there’s a scene where you speak to a freelance colleague who relays a question her editor asked: Why should anyone outside the Nation care about the repeal of the press law? That question struck me in so many ways, because it’s about hierarchy—how some stories are more important than others because they appeal to the mainstream. How do we get past this question?

AE: We rank and file things according to the culture that’s dominant. Lindsey [the freelancer colleague] is a great Indigenous journalist, but her editors were saying, Why should I care? What they were actually saying was, Why should old white fuckers care? My answer to that has always been that marginalized communities, Indigenous communities, BIPOC communities, we’re the canary in the mine. You should care because when your neighbor suffers, you will suffer. We should ask ourselves better questions, like Where is our compassion for other people’s rights when ours don’t feel threatened at all? If each of us thought, I feel safe to use my words on behalf of your rights, no one would have to stand by themselves.

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Why do you think journalists from marginalized communities carry this burden about not showing their community in a certain negative light? You talk about this in the documentary as a concern of yours… 

When I was really young and doing journalism in the tribal setting, I felt that pressure, because I would see the outside media flock and they would jump on a story about somebody doing something wrong. It was the first time I realized that mainstream media harms marginalized communities. You feel like you want to help your community navigate that system, so I would think, What does my audience really need from this? versus, What does an outside audience really need to understand? Those were really different things. There came a point, about halfway through my career, where I almost said, To hell with that outside audience, I don’t care anymore. The outside world wants you to scrape away your local ties and your local thought; you have to be part of this big picture. I contribute because I can fit into the small pie [of my community]. That small pie is the reason I am valuable. I work as an Indigenous reporter. I wanted to be a matriarch and a reporter, and I wanted to serve both those roles.

Do you remember a time when you had to confront this burden; when you had to uncover wrongdoing regardless? 

It was the very first story I ever got an award for. One of our tribal leaders was moving into his last term; he was the incumbent who couldn’t run again, and he was taking the opportunity to really clean up corruption and it was having just chaotic consequences. There was infighting between different clans and different neighborhoods—different families were just eating each other apart—and I knew I had to capture that moment. I needed to get a snapshot so that we could see what it looks like when we try to strengthen ourselves from the inside out. I could see that it was going to upset the people who had their fingers in the honeypot. They were going to get big mad. But in order to keep our gaming revenue, we had to do it. The National Indian Gaming Commission was about to rip our gaming license away, because there was so much graft. And so I did that story, and eleven of our tribal people were investigated for embezzlement. But I still felt so proud of that story, because I knew what was captured was our own words, not just the mainstream going: Embezzling chiefs—that’s a great, sexy story. They didn’t dig into the factors that made it easy for graft and fraud to exist. They didn’t care about the people who were hurting because of the fraud. The people who were missing out and not having funding because it was being stolen. We talked to them. 

I remember you saying in a question-and-answer session, after the documentary was screened at the the Atlantic Festival, that your community is very sensitive to outsiders and they take time to trust. Did you find in the beginning that that trust was there for you—as an insider, but one who was trying to uncover wrongdoing? Did you get that buy-in immediately, or did you have to work at it and convince people?

I earned it with blood, sweat, and tears my whole life. It was almost like for every person who sees the system and is hurt by it, you have to suffer alongside them before they understand that you’re not going to hurt them, too. It took a long time for the buy-in to work. I train a lot of newsrooms on this. It is particularly true for really any marginalized community. You can’t just go on day one and expect them to unload their deepest secrets and their deepest hurts to you, because sometimes they only have the energy to tell it once. You almost have to come to the table multiple times to say, Look, here’s me still being me, even though I don’t have what I want from you. I’m still here for you. And you have to become a part of that community in a way. I had to sit down with people knowing that they were not going to talk to me for maybe four or five times—go to their kids’ ball games and just go to shoot the shit sometimes, so they could know that I wasn’t there to just take off with the story and never speak to them again. So many of our communities are treated that way.

The media in your community is partly funded by the government. When freedom of the press was repealed, you had to be managed and edited by government officials. Talk to me about this funding model. 

Tulsa has a vast news ecosystem; we could never compete with their advertising base. And who wants to buy ads when the only people you’re targeting are the poorest, most marginalized people in the market? So what we pitched is publicly funded media as a service to the people. It comes from that PBS-type, education- and service-oriented information model. About two-thirds of my budget comes from the government and then a third comes from commercial printing. Now that we have this constitutionally protected press, and now that I’m in charge, we’re also trying to add a third factor, and that’s grant funding. We’re trying to have a really diverse model that’s much healthier, and harder to dismantle or slow down. 

There’s a scene in the documentary where two members of the community said that the only reason you were fighting for freedom of the press is to protect your budget. How did you navigate having to educate people to say, We are protecting our budget because we’re trying to serve you. It’s for your own benefit?

It became a really good question because a few of the elders or some aunties would come by and say, Hey, they say you’re just worried about your salary, and then I had the opportunity to say, Here’s the big thing you need to understand about a newspaper. It’s not like you spend a lot of money on computers; you only buy those once every three years. But I have to pay people to write; 75 percent of my budget is salaries. If it’s a human-driven business without the human beings, how do we do it? And then they’re like, That makes a lot of sense. I would also have the opportunity to say, By the way, since the dawn of time, since we started this newspaper fifty years ago, they’ve always paid our budget. They’ve always paid our salaries. It changes nothing. They’ll still have to approve our budget. It’s not like I can come and inflate it arbitrarily. You’ll get the audit reports. All it does is put a line in the constitution that says the people deserve information and we will fucking pay for it. A lot of people would say, Ah, I like this. What you see nationally—how misinformation gets used—those tactics were playing out heavily on our people. So those [community members accusing Mvskoke Media of just wanting to protect their budget], they were listening to one or two people who would just give them a certain catch line, and they would echo it out into the world, and I would have to spend a lot of time and energy trying to [clear up] a lie that has made its way around the world before the truth even puts its shoes on. That was the race that we were in. I would tell myself, too, Look at their followers [on Twitter]. Three or four hundred likes. I’ve got twenty-two thousand. I think we’re good.

They may have four hundred likes now, but that can grow. These pieces of misinformation can scale, right? Doesn’t that worry you? 

You don’t get your trust card and keep it forever; it’s not a lifetime appointment. Every journalism outlet, no matter the audience, if you’re not putting some energy into continuing and demonstrating why you should be trusted, then you’re probably going to have issues come up later. In our community, I feel like it’s extra important because we have so much face-to-face interaction. I go up to the elders’ lunch on a Thursday, just to show up and hear what they have to say—to know that I’m there with my ears on. And they’ll ask about something that they’ve heard, and if I don’t have the answer, I always tell them that I’m going to go do some digging and come back to them with some answers. That gives them that extra boost of confidence to know that I’m serving their information. I’m doing that work on their behalf. 

When freedom of the press was repealed, you had to submit your work to a member of the government who became your de facto editor. In that time, were there things that you wanted to do that you couldn’t? 

I look at our archives and I do see gaps. I think of almost everything from the archive perspective. When I start the staff meeting every week, I’m like, What is happening this week that we must capture? So looking back on that time period, three or four years ago, there’s some things that we’re going to have to really dive into, to correct the narrative. Those are happening slowly. Right now, we’re doing a lot of coverage on our court system. We couldn’t report on McGirt v. Oklahoma. [Jimmy McGirt, who had been convicted of serious sexual offenses by an Oklahoma court, challenged the state’s jurisdiction, claiming that only the tribal nation could prosecute him; the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 2020.] We couldn’t get anybody on the record; we were really hampered on what we could do. Now we have this [ruling] handed down from the Supreme Court that gives our tribe jurisdiction, but a lot of people don’t realize what it’s done to our courts: they’re overburdened; they’re not keeping up. We’re having to do really in-depth coverage. 

When freedom of the press was repealed, you were covering local elections. A referendum vote for press freedom was also on the ballot. How do you cover elections under these conditions, when the government could shut you down at any minute—a government that, in this case, wanted press freedom to stay repealed? 

[During a previous election] we got to turn the cameras on from the time we picked up the ballots all the way through counting. The next time they wouldn’t let us. The election board, on behalf of the chief, asked me to turn the camera off. I said, I’ll do whatever you need, but I’ll damn sure tell everybody why. And they were like, Never mind. When covering elections under censorship, you have to be prepared. It’s not gonna be easy. You’re not gonna make friends. That was one of the things I dealt with a lot. I felt very lonely and very separated from my community during that time. 

I think that was the intention the powers that be had. That was the tool that worked in their favor. Once I got brave enough to start speaking up no matter what, I felt reconnected, and the people surrounded me and protected me. But they use that fear to separate you so you don’t have that support. When you are connected to the people, it will breathe life into you every single time. I couldn’t tell you how many times there was an auntie that would pull me aside and give me a talking-to and tell me, Don’t you walk around with your head down. I see you. You’re kicking ass. You keep going. And it would just mean the whole world to me. And so I would keep doing it. 

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times unveiled what it is calling “enhanced bios” for its journalists, bulking up their bylines to offer more information about their “experience, expertise and ethics” as part of a bid to boost reader trust. “With the increasing prospect of more A.I.-generated content filling the internet,” the paper said, “we want to address this head-on by emphasizing the people behind our work.” Separately, the Times announced that it is building out a team to explore how AI might be used in its newsroom, though it stressed that it will still be written by humans. Emilia David has more for The Verge.
  • According to Sara Fischer, of Axios, the Wall Street Journal is restructuring its DC bureau, a change that will lead to “a small number of layoffs as well as some new roles.” In other media-business news, the CEO of G/O Media told Fischer that the company has no plans to offload its entire portfolio of media assets this year, following reports that it may do so. And the Daily Iowan, a student newspaper at the University of Iowa, acquired two local weeklies, the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun and the Solon Economist.
  • Last week, a judge in Oregon ordered The Oregonian to return or destroy documents that a lawyer in a discrimination case against Nike said she had shared with the paper by mistake. The paper appealed, describing the order as an unconstitutional “prior restraint” on its reporting. Yesterday, a different judge ruled in its favor, overturning the prior ruling. (ICYMI, Seth Stern recently wrote about prior restraints for CJR.) 
  • The Post’s Martin Gelin reviewed Get the Picture, a new book by the journalist Bianca Bosker, who went (semi-)undercover within the New York art scene. The result, Gelin writes, is “a dark comedy of manners” that exposes “a new kind of country club mentality, where the cultural elite can no longer exclude people based on race, gender or sexual identity, so they come up with clever new ways to build moats around their little castles.”
  • And—in an essay for Air Mail headlined “Sports Immolated”—Buzz Bissinger, the journalist and author of Friday Night Lights, writes about the “slow demise” of Sports Illustrated magazine, which is in fresh turmoil of late. Were it not for Sports Illustrated, Bissinger writes, he would never “have learned the difference between sportswriting, a mindless layering of cliché upon cliché, and writing about sports.”

ICYMI: Guatemala has a new reformist president. Will he get a veteran muckraker out of jail?

Ayodeji Rotinwa is a CJR fellow.