OUR OPINION: Reservations need, deserve a free pressSupporting a free press is an indirect way of tackling the IHS’s unresponsiveness, among other issues. But it deserves a place in the lineup of reforms because if American history is any guide, it just might work.
By: Tom Dennis for the Herald, Grand Forks Herald
It’s encouraging that — as today’s Herald reports — Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., met with the director of the Indian Health Service and “put her on notice” that American Indians in North Dakota deserve better care than they’re getting.
But it’s deeply discouraging that problems on Indian reservations tend to persist despite such scoldings.
Year after year, decade after decade, the reservations lag in positive indicators (such as high-school graduation rates and the like) and lead in the negative ones — poverty, unemployment, youth suicides and so on.
Even the federal agencies such as the IHS that are charged with helping tribal members instead seem plagued with gross inefficiencies, as this most recent episode proves.
So, let’s hope that the Indian Health Service director takes Conrad’s charge to heart and succeeds where others have failed.
But let’s not be surprised if next year brings word that the problems have persisted or maybe even gotten worse. That has been the pattern, and it has repeated over and over again.
What to do?
Whole books could be written to answer that question. But here’s one idea that could be a sparkplug for many other reforms:
Ask the Gates Foundation or other source of funding to help build the institution of a free tribal press.
Clearly, one reason why the problems with federal agencies, tribal governance and the like have persisted is that most reservations lack “watchdogs” — specifically, independent newspapers or other media outlets that cover tribal issues.
That watchdog function is critical to good government, whether the institution is Congress, a state legislature, a city government, a federal agency or a tribal council. But very few reservations have a press that fills that role.
A 2005 report from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University explains why:
“The majority of the estimated 300 tribal newspapers and newsletters remain financially dependent on tribal coffers. This means tribal newspaper editors tend to stay away from news that calls tribal leaders into question.
“In a recent sample by the Harvard University Native American Program, fewer than one-quarter of tribal newspaper editors viewed their role as being a watchdog of tribal government. One-third regarded their newspapers as public relations tools.
“Thankfully, three-quarters of editors surveyed felt their main duty was to report the news, but this didn’t include holding tribal government leaders accountable.”
The trouble is that on most reservations, the tribe remains the major employer and source of funding. That means tribal newspapers lack advertisers and must depend on the tribe for support.
A generous and committed foundation could change that, at least on a handful of reservations to start.
There are other press-related problems, including a scarcity of American Indian journalists and the reluctance of tribal and federal agencies to fully open their books. But once an independent and aggressive tribal press starts reporting those stories, the problems will be on their way to being solved.
Supporting a free press is an indirect way of tackling the IHS’s unresponsiveness, among other issues. But it deserves a place in the lineup of reforms because if American history is any guide, it just might work.
— Tom Dennis for the Herald