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“Independent Media Can Strengthen Tribal Sovereignty”: Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler on Bad Press

A young man wearing a blue t-shirt holds a sign that reads "free press."Bad Press, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

While freedom of the press has certainly been a newsworthy topic these past few years, those of us in the US can at least take comfort in (i.e., take for granted) the fact that our First Amendment firmly protects this inalienable right. That is, unless you happen to likewise be a citizen of one of the sovereign nations sprinkled throughout this occupied land—aka Indian Country—where only a handful of tribes have seen fit to enshrine such a guarantee into their constitutions. Which is a problem not just for the average, truth-seeking Native populace at large, but especially for a dogged reporter like Angel Ellis—the hard-hitting star of Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s Sundance-debuting documentary Bad Press—and her often embattled colleagues at Mvskoke Media in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

Just prior to the film’s January 22 premiere as part of the festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition, Filmmaker caught up with the co-directors to learn all about their under-reported journey down a rabbit hole in our own backyard; one in which independent media, and even elections, can be too easily coopted by government leaders behind closed doors.

Filmmaker: How did this project originate?

Landsberry-Baker: Working for the Muscogee Nation News was my first job out of journalism school at the University of Oklahoma in 2008. Tribal journalists wear all the hats, usually as part of a small team, so the Mvskoke Media newsroom was where I learned about all things news production (including print, layout and radio). I also eventually learned to be a leader as the youngest editor in the publication’s history at the age of 22. As editor at the MNN, I personally experienced censorship and the firing of my entire staff after a change in tribal administrations.

Eventually I hired Angel Ellis as my editorial assistant. She is exactly who you see in the film—an unbridled, devoted talent who was willing to push the envelope on what tribal media coverage could be. I also worked with Jerrad Moore and Jason Salsman while I was there. (Hopefully we’ve all matured some over the last decade, ha.) These are my people—my fellow citizens and journalists all facing the same unique challenges and trying to cope with the pressure and stress that comes with “slaying heroes” sometimes, (as Angel put it); so this story is very personal to me.

When the repeal happened in 2018, I was serving as president of the Mvskoke Media Editorial Board, which had been established through the 2015 Free Press Act. The repeal dissolved the editorial board; I knew if I didn’t act to document this story, the politicians working to quash the press would win and the story would die. During my time with NAJA I’ve seen many versions—tribal media being censored and retaliated against for unfavorable coverage—so I wanted to tell the Muscogee journalists’ story of this battle for free press in Indian Country. Luckily, Angel returned to Mvskoke Media (after being fired years earlier) to lead the charge.

My now-husband and fellow producer Garrett Baker pitched the story as a feature documentary to his friend Joe Peeler on Monday. By Friday Joe had booked a flight to Tulsa to meet Angel and film our first scene.

Peeler: Yes, when I heard about what was happening at Mvskoke Media I thought there might be an interesting story there. It wasn’t until I met Angel, though, that I knew this was a story that needed to be told. From the moment I met her, Angel was so funny—yet underneath the snark she passionately cares about her fellow Muscogee citizens. I was so impressed by her candor and willingness to put herself at risk for the betterment of her nation. I thought, if anyone is going to tell the world about the repeal of free press, if anyone can fight back, it’s going to be Angel. So I came back from that first shoot and immediately started editing footage; and Becca and I began what turned into a four-year journey to make this movie.

Filmmaker: Since Rebecca is both a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, and the executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, I’m guessing access to the journalists featured might have been a much easier task than getting to the tribal leaders (many of whom obviously refused to go on camera). So how did you approach everyone, including this group of “hostile” potential protagonists? What worked and what didn’t?

Landsberry-Baker: As a previous tribal media editor and NAJA leader, I’ve worked closely with many of the Indigenous journalists in our film; so to some extent, they were already primed to participate and share their stories.

As for the tribal politicians, 2019 was an election year so most of the candidates were willing to talk with the production team during campaign season. We obviously had no idea what the outcome of the election would be at that time, so our strategy was to talk to as many candidates as possible about key voter issues—which included free press for Mvskoke Media. We were also following the McGirt v. Oklahoma SCOTUS case, which was a huge win for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in 2020, but it ended up being such an unwieldy story that we had to cut it out of the film completely.

I do think my connection to this project as a citizen was essential to our early access, and we built genuine relationships with many of the subjects on both the journalist and politician sides. I often say journalists and the tribal politicians are both fighting to protect the same thing—tribal sovereignty—they’re just using different tactics to accomplish that. One is using transparency to keep information open and flowing, and the other side is trying to ensure no bad news leaks to the outside. As a filmmaker and former journalist, I have some biased opinions here on which option is better, but I also wanted to give an opportunity to both sides to tell us why they chose the path that they did. Also, if you’re a politician, you can’t just ignore a Muscogee voter during election season.

Peeler: Even though Rebecca is a Muscogee citizen and grew up on the Muscogee reservation, I think many citizens and politicians were rightfully skeptical of our crew at first. Even many journalists at Mvskoke Media were skeptical! But by returning to Okmulgee consistently for two, three years, people began to understand that we were not just there to parachute in. We were there for the long haul, and genuinely invested in telling the story as fully and accurately as possible.

As an outsider, I was also very cognizant of parachuting into the Muscogee community simply to extract a story. Early in production we interviewed reporter Graham Brewer (Cherokee), and he told us, “As Indigenous people, our stories are our resource. They are something that has great value to us.” Graham really informed my approach as a filmmaker, and after speaking with him the ethos of our film really congealed. In order to tell the story, our crew needed to actually embed in the community and genuinely invest in allowing each participant to express their perspective—no matter if they were a politician who voted for the repeal of the Free Press Act or a journalist fighting to restore it. Some people, politicians and otherwise, just didn’t want to talk to us, but our approach never changed.

Filmmaker: It also struck me that several of the film’s “outrages”—like the fact that only five tribes have freedom of the press enshrined in their constitutions—might only be revelations to white folks like myself. Which made me curious about who you made this film for, and how you hope to reach these viewers. Those in Indian Country? Fellow journalists? The general public?

Landsberry-Baker: I’m always surprised anytime anyone outside of journalism knows anything about the free press struggles in Indian Country, so you’re in good company!

But to clarify a bit, only five tribes have passed laws protecting free press (that we know of for sure). During the annual NAJA conference, it’s kind of like a big family reunion where you see your fellow tribal media journo friends and swap war stories. Our conference is one of the only places in the world where journalists facing the unique challenges to reporting in Indian Country are having these conversations, so it’s truly a special convening each year. This film is certainly for these folks—the Indigenous journalists—but I also see a broader general audience that can relate to many of the relevant political themes here in the US, too.

Also, there is so much footage we didn’t even get to use that should be archived forever—because our people, their experiences and lives, are critical to the history of Indigenous journalism.

Peeler: I would say that the most important thing I want to highlight about our film is how unexpectedly funny it is; and I think that humor is going to be the main way we reach our audiences. The film is full of hilarious characters packed into this suspenseful journalism movie, so I hope that Native and non-Native audiences alike will be drawn to the film.

But beyond the humor, I am always struck by the fact that very few people other than Native journalists know anything about the repeal of the Free Press Act, or by extension the lack of freedom of press throughout Indian Country. I certainly knew nothing about it before embarking on this film with Becca. So, yes, this story will certainly surprise non-Native audiences. But on top of that, we spoke with numerous tribal citizens who didn’t know that their own tribal media outlets are controlled and potentially being censored by their tribal governments. So I hope that Native and non-Native audiences alike will find the film revelatory (as well as hilarious).

Filmmaker: One of the more ominous scenes in the film involves waiting for your main character, Angel Ellis, to emerge from a meeting. Not only is your camera not allowed inside, but we never really get a sense of what exactly happened behind those closed doors. Which made me wonder if you purposely kept information out of the film at the behest of your characters. How involved were they in shaping the doc?

Landsberry-Baker: Though we have a personal connection to many of our subjects in the film, they were not involved in shaping the story of the documentary. That being said, Angel has taken a great professional and personal risk as a participant, so we tried to be very thoughtful about how conversations between her and other subjects were treated by our filmmaking team. There was never a time she asked us to stop filming or to edit something out, and Angel’s absolute transparency is just one of the many attributes that makes her an incredible human and main subject. She’s truly a warrior for free press in Indian Country!

Filmmaker: So have all the participants seen the final cut, and has there been any backlash so far? What do you anticipate the reactions will be like?

Landsberry-Baker: None of the subjects has seen a final cut, but they have seen a previous version (which they gave a thumbs-up to back in August), so hopefully the locked cut is much, much better. I think it is! There is just so much excitement around seeing themselves, their struggles and their brand of wacky humor onscreen. Our people are funny! And I’m so glad to highlight the Indigenous experience with the nuance and hilarity that’s so apparent in our communities.

We haven’t gotten much backlash yet, but I fully expect there will be some folks upset that we’re “putting our dirty chonies on the line to air out,” as Angel says, so I’m preparing for that! But I hope that what ultimately comes across for my fellow citizens in the film is how an independent media can strengthen tribal sovereignty and provide accountability within tribal democracies because it bolsters the voice of the people.

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