I’ve worked as a journalist in mainstream and ethnic press since the 1980s, and I’ve served as the president and then a board member of the Native American Journalists Association. One of my main motivations for choosing this job was to improve and enlarge coverage of Native peoples. Even as a youngster, I noted that there was little reporting on my community. If we did appear in the media, the coverage was usually reductive and stereotypical. As a Native editor once remarked to me, “If we’re in the paper or on TV, we’re either dead, drunk or dancing.”
Despite periodic promises to diversify staff, mainstream media continue to be dominated by White men. According to a 2017 report by the Association of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), journalists of color comprised just 16.6 percent of U.S. newsrooms in 2017. Of that percentage, Native journalists made up a piddling .36. (The 2018 survey results are incomplete.)
I once dreamed of changing that dynamic but was crushed when my newspaper editors refused to let me cover Native issues. They told me that since I am an Ojibwe woman, I wouldn’t be able to maintain my journalistic objectivity. I asked one editor if he had similar concerns about sending White male reporters to cover City Hall since most of the political leaders were also White men. He smiled and shook his head no; that was different, he insisted. And besides, he noted, I was just being a smart ass.
I yelled from the bully pulpit of racial diversity until I got disgusted and burnt out. In 2003, I left mainstream journalism and began writing about Native peoples and issues for the ethnic press, mostly. While the money and recognition have been thin, the personal and spiritual satisfaction has been rewarding. Occasionally, however, an example of White-driven coverage of Native peoples will piss me off, and I’ll write an op-ed. This is one of those times.
My latest rancor is directed at the Wall Street Journal and PBS’ “Frontline.” The outlets partnered over a two-year period to produce the recently-aired “Predator on the Reservation.” The film is an investigation into the decades-long failure of the Indian Health Service (IHS) to stop Dr. Stanley Patrick Weber from sexually abusing Native boys under his care. Weber began his alleged abuse on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana and then moved on to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
The work is very important and is especially poignant as it focuses on the terrible toll that childhood sexual abuse takes on peoples’ lives. And the reporters from the Wall Street Journal—Dan Frosch, Gabe Johnson and Christopher Weaver—did a better job than most non-Native people reporting on Indian Country. Thankfully, they bucked the trend of painting Pine Ridge with the familiar brush of poverty porn and focused instead on the crimes within the IHS.
However, there are missing pieces in their reporting, and I can’t help but wonder what insights and knowledge a Native American journalist would have added to the story.
To truly show how an abusive White doctor could continue to work on reservations, you need to take a deep dive into the history of U.S. policy toward Native peoples. If I were on the team, I certainly would have highlighted the huge disparity in funding between Medicaid and IHS. For decades, Congress has chastised IHS for poor quality healthcare. But IHS, which was added to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s list of high-risk agencies in 2017, doesn’t receive enough money from the federal government to fully fund healthcare for tribes. While Medicaid pays an average of $6,300 per patient annually, IHS only spends $3,851.
This story also demands a closer examination of the federal government’s historic failure to meet its treaty obligations to provide health care for Native Americans. These treaty obligations date back to 1787. It’s fundamental to understand how the United States’ colonial mindset continues define its relationship with tribes. That mindset normalizes a culture of abuse and substandard treatment of Native people in many areas.
In addition, the perspective of at least one journalist on this story reflects a naiveté born of race and class privilege. In a Frontline-branded article about the reporting process, Weaver says of Native interview subjects: “There’s this incredible circumspection about what’s going on in the world that immediately surrounded them and the history that they are living with—that was kind of a surprise to me.” “Circumspection” is old news in Indian Country. That should be the starting point of any story about our relationship with the federal government. We know full well that Weber’s ongoing ability to abuse his young Native patients is a logical result of federal policies specifically designed to separate us from our lands, cultures and families.
These policies include coerced attendance at federal and church-run Indian boarding schools where sexual and physical abuse frequently occurred. For example, there are verified cases of sexual abuse at Catholic Indian boarding schools in Alaska during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and at a Mormon program operating from 1947 to the mid 1990s. Recently, South Dakota killed a bill that would have expanded the statute of limitations allowing Indian boarding school survivors and sexual abuse survivors to sue organizations such as the Catholic church.
I will say that much of the media’s poor or incomplete coverage of Native issues stems from the fact that Indian Country is a very complex beat. Few journalists are given sufficient time and support to educate themselves about our histories and our unique relationships with the federal government.
But it pisses me off greatly that a Native journalist didn’t get the financial and institutional backing of a legacy media organization like the Wall Street Journal that any reporter would need to unravel a story like this. It seems that it takes White male reporters to notice and validate the importance of a Native issue to get a major investigation done.
Mainstream editors have long complained that there are not enough trained Native American journalists for them to hire. Based on the ASNE survey one could conclude that Native American journalists are incapable or, worse, don’t exist.
I think back to the 2018 midterm elections when I joined 40 Native journalists in providing live coverage. Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today, devised a bold plan in which we fanned out across the country to provide authentic coverage of an historic election in which over more than 100 Native Americans ran for office. When the night was over, Trahant said, “If anyone in a news company ever, ever says to me again that they can’t find anyone [Native] when hiring, I’ll make them sit down and watch our video.”.
The truth is, White men don’t possess an exclusive, priestly hold on journalistic skill. And they certainly don’t have a premium on objectivity. All journalists bring our birth, ethnicity and identities as people to this work. Thinking otherwise is an illusion that helps stifle opportunities for Native journalists to do our work with the institutional support we need to move the needle on our issues.
Mary Annette Pember is an independent journalist focusing on Native American issues. Her work has appeared in Indian Country Today, Rewire.News, Truthout and The Washington Post, among others. Pember is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe tribe and currently lives in Cincinnati. Follow her work at MAPember.com.