WASHINGTON – Many tribal and national American Indian media outlets knew beforehand that first lady Michelle Obama would be making a Feb. 9 visit to the Department of the Interior. But, due to roadblocks set up by the White House, Native media were shut out at an event, during which Obama would reveal big news for Indian country.
Several mainstream outlets carried the headline Obama announced that day, that the president plans to soon appoint a senior policy advisor to his White House staff to work with tribes and the federal government on issues such as sovereignty, health care and education. The Native media had been reporting on President Obama’s pledge since he first made it months ago during his campaign.
The information was received by the White House pool reporters who are charged with following the happenings of the presidential administration each day. Members of this elite pool, as well as members of the White House press staff, are nearly all white. The lack of diversity on both sides is being criticized by minority journalists and organizations that represent them. There are no known Native reporters, nor Native news outlets, represented in the bunch.
Officials with the DOI know that the White House press pool is exclusive. They also knew in advance that plans were in the works for Obama to be honored with a traditional shawl made by Marianne Hannsom, a BIA employee who is a member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma.
DOI officials wanted several Native news outlets to be there. Thus, in the midst of planning to accommodate the first lady’s visit, they made requests to the White House indicating that Native media be included.
Upon learning of the event, Indian Country Today reached out to the White House. The day before the event, Katie McCormick-Lelyveld, a spokeswoman for the first lady responded by e-mail. The event, McCormick-Lelyveld explained, would be covered by “pooled press,” but an assessment would be made to possibly accommodate additional reporters.
The next day, however, further contact from the White House never came – to any Native news outlets. Antonia Gonzales, an anchor and producer with National Native News, said that she wound up covering the event by relying on audio posted later on DOI’s Web site. She wanted to have a reporter at the event.
Semonti Mustaphi, a deputy press secretary to the first lady, explained after the event that organizers decided to “use the traditional set of pool reporters.” She added, “I seem to remember Indianz was invited, but never showed up.” [Acee Agoyo of Indianz.com did attend the event, having been invited by the first lady’s office.] Mustaphi said this was the new press office’s third event and its staffers “are still fine tuning [the] process.”
Indian media have long been denied access when attempting to cover federal government events. At Obama’s inauguration several tribal papers could not get press access to the swearing-in ceremony – and many were left to rely on mainstream coverage to help tell their stories.
“This has been a problem for a long time,” said Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe and editorial page editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Trahant noted that many years ago, he applied for Congressional press credentials, but couldn’t get them because the tribal paper he worked for at the time was owned by a tribal government. Congress press officers said this made him ineligible. ICT has faced similar obstacles.
“I suppose a tribal paper could get on the White House bus – if they had the resources to devote to a full-time White House beat,” Trahant added. “Not likely.”
Ronnie Washines, who is Yakama and president of the Native American Journalists Association, said many American Indians are concerned about being forced to get federal political news that affects them filtered through the lens of the mainstream press.
“Without having Native journalists cover such events, all Natives are left to once again try to interpret the coverage and how it sincerely affected Native concerns,” Washines said. “I sincerely believe that the White House, Congress and even mainstream press could have learned something if Native journalists were allowed frontline coverage and heard or read their reports on such events.”
“It’s too bad,” Trahant reflected on the Obama administration’s DOI missed opportunity. “This was a great story. It would have been ideal for this administration to let Indian country journalists report directly for the people back home. I hope attention on this issue brings about a long overdue change.”
Rob Schmidt, an analyst of Native media and an editor at PECHANGA.net, said that he had no idea from observing the mainstream press reports that Michelle Obama’s visit was invitation only, nor that invitations to the press were limited.
“This seems wrong on the face of it,” Schmidt said. “If an administration event involves Natives and the rules prevent Native press coverage, make an exception to the rules. Better yet, change the rules.”