Native journalists scrutinize Obama

CHICAGO - Tom Arviso Jr., publisher of the Navajo Times, was primed and pumped to ask Sen. Barack Obama a question during the presumptive Democratic candidate;s appearance at the 2008 UNITY: Journalists of Color convention July 26. He had been working for months with the Native American Journalists Association to have his voice heard.

But at the last minute, UNITY organizers and CNN producers, who televised the event, cut Arviso from the lineup. He was told that his question could not fit into the senator's schedule. The newsman specifically wanted to know how the candidate would help tribes to become more self-sustaining.

Arviso said the change was made ''basically at the request of the Obama camp,'' according to information he received from NAJA leaders.

''I was quite disappointed,'' said Arviso, who ultimately left the convention early in a sort of protest. ''What happened in Chicago, it just didn't look like it was run as professionally as it could have been - and, I think, a lot of that had to do with Obama's campaign. ... As journalists, we don't like to be told ahead of time what we're able to ask and what we're limited to. It boils down to a freedom of the press issue.''

Several Native journalists said after the event that developments at UNITY were an indication that Obama and his planners are sheltering the candidate from difficult questions. It's a criticism that Obama is increasingly facing from some members of the press who say access to him is being limited and tends to happen in largely scripted environments.

Karen Lincoln Michel, president of UNITY and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said she would have liked for more questions to be asked by minority journalists, but that the partnership between UNITY and CNN complicated matters.

''CNN had its idea of what the forum should be, and we would have hoped that our members could have played a greater role,'' she said, adding that she thought the exposure of having the event televised on the network was a great occurrence.

Michel said, too, that Obama campaign officials ''expressed concern'' about the length of the event and the candidate's tiredness after having embarked on a Middle East tour during the previous week.

Obama had been scheduled to appear at UNITY for weeks in the context of a town hall-style meeting, alongside Sen. John McCain. However, in the days before UNITY, officials with Obama's campaign announced the senator could not make it because of his newly scheduled Middle East tour during that timeframe. After McCain's camp learned of this decision, McCain canceled his UNITY appearance.

Ultimately, Obama's campaign rescheduled to participate when the senator returned from his trip. McCain officials said he could not fit the new date into his schedule.

In 2004, both President George W. Bush and his opponent, Sen. John Kerry, appeared at UNITY. That occurrence made this year's turn of events all the more disappointing for some Native journalists, who have noted that both Obama and McCain have said from the campaign perch how strongly they feel about Native issues.

Rhonda LeValdo, Acoma Pueblo and the newly elected vice president of NAJA, had also been previously scheduled to ask a question of both Obama and McCain but, like Arviso, she was told hours before the event that there was no room for her participation. She had planned on asking about how the candidates would deal with the educational needs of the Indian population that are not being met.

Instead, she was told that the Obama camp and CNN organizers would allow just one journalist from each of UNITY's minority journalist organizations to ask a single question.

''I just felt like our worth is more than one question,'' said LeValdo, who is currently working under an online journalism fellowship with the ''NewsHour with Jim Lehrer'' program.

''It was almost like the whole event was not being run by UNITY. I almost felt like they were not in charge anymore.''

She noted that CNN reporters were given a lion's share of the time to ask Obama many questions during his appearance - none of which focused on Indian issues.

The sole Native journalist who was allowed to ask Obama a question - Brian Bull, assistant news director with Wisconsin Public Radio - said he, too, was surprised not only by how the logistics of the event unfolded, but also by Obama's response to his question.

Bull asked the senator whether an Obama administration ''would issue an apology to Native Americans for the atrocities they've endured for the past 500 years.'' He noted in his question that the prime ministers of Australia and Canada have recently apologized for their countries' past negative treatments of indigenous people.

''You know, I personally would want to see our tragic history or the tragic elements of our history acknowledged,'' Obama responded. ''And I think that there's no doubt that, when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans, as well as other persons of color in this country, that we've got some - some very sad and difficult things to account for.

''You know, what an official apology would look like, how it would be shaped, that's something that I would want to consult with Native American tribes and councils to talk about, and - because, obviously, as sovereign nations, they also have a whole host of other issues that they're concerned about and that they've prioritized.''

Obama added that he wants to set up annual meetings with tribal leaders to be sure a range of their issues are being addressed. He said it's important to offer not just words, like an apology, but to also offer deeds.

''I'm more concerned about delivering a better life and creating a better relationship with the Native American peoples than anything else.''

Bull said he was surprised by Obama's response, since the senator had no problem offering definite presidential plans during his recent trip to the Middle East.

''It was an interesting contrast. It may send some mixed messages throughout Indian country, especially given the actions by the Canadian and Australian prime ministers.''

Corey Ealons, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said he believed the event went off ''great,'' especially considering that the senator had been coming off several days of tiring international travel.

In terms of taking more questions from Natives and other minority journalists, Ealons said it was ''not [Obama's] call.'' When asked to elaborate, Ealons said the lack of more questions was ''based on the timing of the programming and based on other factors that were taken into consideration.'' He did not answer whether the Obama campaign purposely restricted questions.

''Sen. Obama did come, he did participate, and he did make himself available,'' Ealons said.

While Obama received his share of criticism from Native journalists, many were also taken aback by McCain's lack of an appearance at UNITY.

''I wish something could have been worked out,'' Bull said. ''There are accounts that he was working with potential GOP donors during that same week. The greatest irony I find in McCain's absence is that he has been complaining that he is not getting anywhere near the media attention Obama is receiving. ... Yet he passed up the opportunity to appear at UNITY.''

''It really looks bad for him, like he doesn't care about what minority journalists think,'' LeValdo assessed of McCain's lack of appearance.