Reporting Trump, Native Code Talkers, and Viral Outrage
Whether it’s lack of coverage or focusing on the wrong story, mainstream media seem to have an Indian problem.
How does the national press cover Indian Country? That’s often an easy question to answer because it’s so rare for the media to weigh in on events that matter. And when they do? Damn.
The White House ceremony to honor code talkers turned into a frenzy. As ABC News reported, “MOMENTS AGO: Pres. Trump at White House event honoring Navajo code talkers, makes joke about “Pocahontas” Sen. Elizabeth Warren.”
That, of course, became the story. It sells. It’s the president disrespecting veterans, history, and Native Americans. It also fits the narrative of the president’s incompetence. This story had “This Will Go Viral” encoded into every frame.
But the telling of the story missed. Hundreds of media outlets, from National Public Radio to The Washington Post, reduced the event to one that only honored Navajo code talkers. Headline after headline. (Interesting: Just a week ago the Post advanced the story broadly. “While the contributions of Navajo code talkers have been honored by Congress and featured in films, the role of dozens of other Native American tribes has been overlooked. But on Wednesday, Congressional Gold Medals, the nation’s highest civilian honor, were awarded honoring the service of hundreds of overlooked code talkers from 33 tribes,” the Post said.)
Perhaps it’s ignorance, right? The news media doesn’t write about these issues often. (And the diversity in the White House press corps is right up there with, say, the Trump cabinet in terms of hearing Native voices.) But here’s the thing: Several media reports quoted the National Congress of American Indians news release. And in paragraph one that says: “Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor today and everyday – the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II. We also honor the service and bravery of all of our veterans and those currently serving from Indian Country. Native people serve in the Armed Forces at a higher rate than any other group in the country, and have served in every war in this nation’s history.”
The information was in front of the reporters. Did they miss nuance? Or facts?
To me this story is disheartening because of what the national media does not cover. There was hardly any reporting about the hiatus of Indian Country Today Media Network (with the exception of one NPR post and Mary Annette Pember’s excellent Columbia Journalism Review piece). But nothing in The New York Times or Washington Post (and therefore nothing on network television).
And there are so many critical stories worth writing about now, such as the tens of thousands of Native children who will lose health insurance soon unless Congress acts. This might sound bureaucratic to reporters, but when the Indian health system runs short of funds many, many patients will be denied medical treatment unless it’s life or limb. That should be an outrage worth the front page.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports