Media's coverage of the Red Lake slayings

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Before 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise gunned down nine tribal members and then
himself the afternoon of March 21, Michael Barrett's privately-owned Red
Lake Net News Web site (www.rlnn.com) was getting a couple hundred hits a
day - mostly from members of the small Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in
Minnesota.

"At one point the site was being hit at the rate of 1,200 hits per hour for
a couple of days, but now it is roughly about 1,000 hits per day," Barrett
said.

But within hours of the massacre, thousands visited the site and scores of
national press descended upon this remote reservation - hours from
Minneapolis, Minn., the nearest city. "Since March 21st [up until] today
[March 29], I've had about 70,000 hits to the main page," Barrett said.

Some say the initial stories highlighted the poverty and despair of the
reservation. Kathie Curley, a public information officer for the Navajo
Nation tourism department, speculated that "maybe it's because main-stream
America can't relate with poor Native Americans."

"But I think other ethnic groups would have the same problem. Imagine
covering similar incidents in a Vietnamese, Asian or Latino community -
even black. It just wouldn't be the same as coverage of a mainstream
middle-class neighborhood."

At the University of Minnesota, students in a Tribal Government class
taught by American Indian Studies professor and author David Wilkins,
Lumbee, had mixed reactions. "Some [students] thought the coverage was
focused too much on the poverty and despair," said Wilkins. "But others
thought that it wasn't. There was a mixed bag of opinions."

Then there are charges that the media underplayed the coverage in
comparison to the 1999 Columbine killings, in which 13 students were gunned
down. Don Wycliff, public editor for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in his
March 24 column that he heard from sources that the Red Lake killings were
being underplayed "for what some suspected were racist reasons."

Wycliff argued that the Columbine killings were different because there the
story played out partially on live television and that the public is used
to seeing live video - something the Red Lake story lacked.

"The Rodney King tapes; Timothy McVeigh's truck bomb; airplanes crashing
into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center ... we take it for
granted that [video coverage] will be there," he wrote. "What the Red Lake
massacre reminds us is that, even in our highly urbanized, electronically
monitored nation, there still are remote places that are a challenge for
[the media] to reach."

Minnesota Star Tribune deputy editor of editorial pages Mike Boyd agreed:
"I really don't think it's racism," he said via e-mail. "I think it is the
isolation of the place, the restrictions put in place by the elders, the
lack of as many people affected [smaller student population]."

In the initial days, according to reports, the tribe stifled the media and
asserted its sovereignty by closing off the reservation. A photographer and
reporter were detained by tribal police and their equipment confiscated.

A Star Tribune columnist wrote: "Tribal police impeded reporters attempting
to do what they would do for any other community at a critical moment: make
sure everyone's voice is heard, that their stories are fully told."

Boyd said his staff "already knew that Red Lake was a closed reservation."

Nonetheless, Star Tribune reporter Mark Boswell, Ojibwe, had difficulty. He
wrote in an essay that he tried speaking Ojibwe, hoping that would help him
get access, but that didn't help.

"And as for the police and the federal jurisdiction to close off access to
the Red Lake, it's really not that unusual for Red Lake that is," Boswell
said in an e-mail. "The reservation is only one of two reservations in the
United States to have such an unusual relationship with the feds. And as to
why they did it ... maybe because they could do it. It's a very controlled
environment."

President Bush's long silence on the tragedy only fueled the charges, as
American Indian Movement leader Vernon Bellecourt told The Washington Post.
"When people's children are murdered and others in the hospital hanging
onto life, he should be the first one [to] offer condolences ... if this
was a white community, I don't think he'd have any problem doing that."

Indeed, Bush offered condolences to the family of brain-damaged Floridian
Terri Schiavo on live television within hours of her death March 31.

Some felt, however, that the local coverage has been OK. "The first concern
was usually [that] when large [national] papers come in and write a story,
they don't do a good job," said Wilkins, who has only been watching
coverage by the Minnesota print media; "but I think the Star Tribune has
done as decently as any newspaper can do." He said in the five years he's
been in Minnesota, The Sunday Viewpoints had an Ojibwe's viewpoint: "That
is a first." The paper also has a Web site with videos. "They have allowed
the Red Lake voice into their paper."

Boyd said, "A number of our reporters have spent a fair amount of time on
reservations ... [One of our reporters, an] Ojibwe reporter up there, is
originally from White Earth, just down the road a bit. Plus, we deal with
Ojibwe all the time; most of the Red Lake people have family in the
cities."