Native press lacks equal access to presidential campaigns

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WASHINGTON – Looking for a Native journalist to ask a hard-hitting question on, say, tribal sovereignty issues as part of Sen. Barack Obama’s or Sen. John McCain’s traveling press corps? You’re bound to be disappointed.

Looking for the campaigns to fill the gap in access? You’re probably going to have some concerns, too.

As in years past, the press corps covering the respective presidential campaigns in 2008 lacks diversity, especially when it comes to Native reporters. There is a handful of black, Hispanic and Asian journalists who are connected to the elite group, but, for the most part, the reporters covering the two men running for the most powerful job in the world are white. Not a single known Native journalist sits on the traveling crew that covers the presidential candidates day in and day out.

“There’s just not a lot of diversity in general in that particular landscape,” said Mark Trahant, editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe. “It’s been a problem for ages.”

Victor Merina, a longtime journalist focused on Native issues, said, too, that adding reporters focused on Indian issues to mainstream political beats wouldn’t pigeonhole the journalists as only being able to ask about developments in Indian country.

“They would be able to ask questions about a broad range of issues that are pertinent in the presidential race – whether they be economic, foreign or domestic policy,” said Merina, who will be covering both the Democratic and Republican conventions for Reznet News.

“What would happen is that [a Native-focused individual] could bring up other issues as well as part of the overall coverage, and some of these issues could be mainstreamed. If you’re able to talk about how economic policy affects people on the rez, depth is given to the campaign coverage.

“It’s not about having someone there who’s only going to be asking questions about Native issues or in the context of Native issues. But having the person there can almost automatically infuse some wider issues into the national campaign coverage.”

The decisions on who will become part of the traveling press corps are made by large mainstream media outlets, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, that have long dominated the news terrain in the U.S. Leaders with the Native American Journalists Association have long pointed out that such outlets have traditionally hired very few Native staffers; the organization has also released data suggesting that mainstream coverage of Indian issues is often biased.

Both candidates have expressed desires to reach crucial racial and ethnic voting blocs, like American Indian voters, so the lack of diversity in the press covering them every day has seemingly been a driving factor in compelling the campaigns to directly reach out to such voters.

Obama, for instance, recently announced plans to open a campaign office on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, N.M. And McCain has met with tribal leaders nationwide as he’s canvassed the country. Talk has also come from both campaigns about creating positions for high-level White House Native advisers.

Still, Trahant said that these kinds of developments, while positive, end up producing “episodic” coverage of events where Indian issues are focused on briefly and then the conversation quickly moves on, as if Indians aren’t still part of the larger campaign picture.

“There are a lot of avenues where Native issues come up, but it would be a lot better if they could be part of the mainstream,” Trahant said. He added that members of the Native press end up having to work much harder to get access to the campaigns, largely because campaigns in past years have not seen Indian voters being a big enough voting bloc to affect election outcomes.

According to some Native journalists, the efforts to reach out to new and swing voters who happen to be Native might be especially urgent for Obama, since he has made a commitment to turn states that traditionally vote Republican into Democratic footholds.

“If you’re talking about winning over battleground states like Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington – where a lot of Native voters could help turn the tide – I definitely think it behooves Obama to pay attention to Native issues,” Merina said. He noted, too, that some in Indian country already have positive feelings toward McCain because of his leadership background as the former head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Both campaigns have made attempts this year to designate staffers who are solely devoted to reaching out to and answering questions from members of minority media outlets and communities. Still, even as the general election quickly approaches, media liaisons specific to the Native press are yet to be hired.

Corey Ealons, a former communications director and deputy chief of staff for Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, was brought on by the Obama campaign in late July to serve as communications director for black media. He ends up talking to minority members beyond the black press.

“The way the campaign has developed is we have individuals who are reaching out to specific communities all over the country,” Ealons said. “We’re doing it in a very aggressive and much more localized way than has been done before.

“The main thing is making sure that everyone gets what they need, and getting it to them as soon as you possibly can. When you’re covering the entire country, it can be a challenge.”

A specific Native media liaison has not yet been named as part of Obama’s team, but Ealons said that a plan is “in process” to do so. He also said that there is already a counterpart to him in the organization devoted to Hispanics.

Hessy Fernandez, meanwhile, was tapped in June by the McCain camp to handle queries from minority media outlets. Her official title is “director of specialty media.” Much of her past experience in working for the Republican National Committee focused on coordinating communications to the Hispanic press.

“We make sure ethnic media is really informed about what is going on in the campaign,” Fernandez said. “It’s one way we are trying to reach out to all Americans, including minorities.”

Fernandez noted that her job keeps her quite busy as she handles queries from dozens of black, Hispanic, Asian and Native-focused reporters every day. “There are many, many, many of you out there,” she told Indian Country Today.

Like the Obama campaign, a liaison specific to the Native press has not been named by the McCain camp.

“I would like to see someone who is familiar with the Native media in both campaign offices, so that they’re able to handle our queries as more than just an afterthought,” Merina said. Trahant, too, said that would be a “great development,” although he hasn’t seen much movement in that area.

While the campaigns have made efforts to reach out, several issues have already been noted in the minority media this election season. McCain, for instance, skipped the UNITY 2008 gathering of minority journalists held in late July, despite having initially promised to be in attendance. At the same event, Obama took only one question from a Native reporter, and many minority journalists expressed concerns that he was not open to more questions.

Trahant noted, too, that much effort has been made by tribal and Indian leaders nationwide to have McCain and Obama speak at a Native-focused event before the November elections, but neither side has gone out of its way to make it happen.

“I guess I’m skeptical.”