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Some 'bias,' some 'bull'?

WASHINGTON – Campbell Brown, an up-and-coming star at CNN, is increasingly making a name for herself by taking on political hot topics of the day and commenting on them through what she and the network label her “no bias, no bull” lens. After turning that lens on American Indian families and the Indian Child Welfare Act – in turn angering many in Indian country – she now says no harm was meant.

“There is no bias here against Native Americans,” Brown wrote via e-mail when asked for comment by Indian Country Today after the Dec.16 airing of her program. During a brief segment of that show, she said Native Americans should “focus on strengthening your families.” She also called the Indian Child Welfare Act “a ridiculous law.”

Her e-mail to ICT continued: “This is about a specific incident, a specific law and how it is being applied in this case. I am certainly happy to review anything that demonstrates to me that this family was treated fairly, and how this little boy could possibly be better off in foster care.”

Brown’s on-air comments saw her look straight at the camera to tell the sad tale of a non-Indian Utah couple who recently had their adopted six-month-old son removed from their home.

The anchor explained that the adoptive parents “lost their son because the birth mother is part Native American,” noting that the boy’s mother is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. She said that the tribe had gone to court and ended up winning the right to take custody of the child.

“A federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act gives the tribe a legitimate claim,” Brown said, adding that the 1978 law was designed to keep Native American children with Native American families.

After raising questions about the blood quantum of both the birth mother and son, Brown said she was outraged that the boy wouldn’t be going back to his birth mother.

“He is expected to go into foster care, perhaps with other siblings already in foster care. … because the birth mother has been declared unfit,” Brown said.

“So, a little boy is being taken away from loving parents who have cared for him for the last six months and put into tribal foster care because that is what the law says is the right thing to do.

“To me, that is a ridiculous law.”

Lastly, Brown offered the following prescriptive: “If there is concern in the Native American community that children are being lost to the tribe through adoption because of unfit parents, then focus on strengthening your families so that your children won’t be parentless.”

And that was it. Until the next morning, that is, when several bloggers started posting about how a CNN anchor had disparaged ICWA and had seemed to make the presumption that Native families are inherently weak. And then the e-mails started buzzing, the phones started ringing, and calls for action were uttered.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association was one of the first Native groups to speak out on the matter, specifically framing Brown’s words as an egregious instance of media bias against Native Americans. The organization’s official statement denounced CNN for its “deeply flawed, “ill-informed,” and “deeply offensive rhetoric.”

“We denounce these ignorant and exploitive comments as the lowest point of journalistic endeavor,” the statement went on. “The true facts of this case speak volumes, beyond the frenzied attacks of irresponsible media spokespeople.”

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians soon weighed in, saying Brown’s commentary warranted a direct response. She said NCAI hopes to get the show to air a fair recognition of what she called Brown’s “inaccurate” commentary.

And then came a critical response from the Native American Journalists Association.

“When frontline media emotionally attempts to exalt what is best for Native Americans, you can usually relate it to the historically founded conquer-and-assimilate process of the first immigrants,” said Ronnie Washines, president of NAJA.

“They just don’t get it. And what makes it all the more negative is that they are teaching their children to accept the same thought process when it comes to dealing with the Native American issue.”

Despite his criticism, Washines, a program administrator of the Yakama Nation’s multimedia services division, said he would not be calling for a boycott of CNN or Brown’s show. “I have always found it useful as a Native and a Native journalist to just let people be themselves in order to know what flows from their hearts and through their mouths,” he said.

Terry L. Cross, the Seneca director of NICWA, said he is reticent about calling for a boycott, although he believes Brown’s commentary contained an “irresponsible” and “anti-Indian bias.” He noted that no one from Brown’s program contacted NICWA about the case or law.

“For CNN to endorse an ill thought-out commentary, I think is highly irresponsible,” Cross added. “We certainly would like to try to educate CNN – we want fair and honest treatment.”

Despite the backlash, Brown is holding firm. After her initial e-mail comments, ICT wrote back to her, asking whether she has thought beyond the circumstances of this one family as to why there needed to be a law like ICWA in the first place.

This time, a CNN spokeswoman replied: “Her commentary from last night is in regard to this specific family."

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