Documentary Tells Tale of Muskogee Nation Free Press Constitutional Amendment
An award-winning new documentary tells the story behind the fight for fundamental free speech rights in the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma. Bad Press follows Muscogee citizen and journalist Angel Ellis as she takes on tribal elected officials who are clamping down on independent media. Over the course of the 98-minute film, Ellis and her scrappy coworkers work long hours in the cluttered offices of Mvskoke Media to hold officials accountable and ultimately to pass a ballot measure enshrining freedom of press in the tribal constitution.
In October 2021, the Muscogee Nation made history by becoming the first tribe to vote to amend its constitution to include press protections. The amendment also guaranteed funding for Mvskoke Media, the main media outlet in the Muscogee Nation. As Ellis colorfully put it after 76 percent of people voted for the amendment, “We just f-—ed up free press in Indian Country!”
Ellis’s exclamation comes at the happy ending of a winding tale that takes viewers through the complex history of tribal press freedom. It brings viewers into the living rooms of Muscogee journalists, activists, and politicians and out to the streets for parades, parties, and campaigning. And, finally, it takes viewers all the way to the ballot box.
Mvskoke Media operates the tribal newspaper, radio, and television channels. But in 2018, a lawmaker that journalists had investigated for sexual misconduct abruptly introduced legislation to repeal the tribe’s free press bill. The measure passed in a surprise vote and brought the media outlet under the control of tribal lawmakers. According to the filmmakers, this turned Mvskoke Media into “government propaganda overnight.”
Importantly, Mvskoke Media is not independently owned. Instead, it is published under the auspices of the tribe, which holds media company’s purse strings. In other words, it’s essentially publicly funded media and operated as part of the tribal government. This is true of most Native American media, according to a 2018 Democracy Fund report by Jodi Rave.
It is Mvskoke Media’s status as a government sponsored and funded publication that made it so vulnerable to manipulation. Originally the newspaper had been expected to tell predominantly good news stories, with headlines such as “Med student hopes to serve Creeks in the future” and “Housing authority to build 75 units in Holdenville,” both published in 1978 issues of the paper. In the film, Ellis pulls paper copies of these issues out of old file cabinets and displays them to the camera.
In 2011, Ellis defied the expectation of only happy reporting by publishing a front-page story on charges of embezzlement involving tribal leaders. That story earned her an award from the Native American Journalists Association — and a pink slip for her job. Later, a 2015 bill guaranteeing independence of the press temporarily relaxed the tribal government’s hold over the editorial content of the media outlet — but, as the film shows, it proved to be short-lived.
Mvskoke Media’s predicament is not unusual across Native American nations: 76 percent of tribal media organizations say that their content is always, frequently, or sometimes determined by tribal government officials. Eighty-three percent say tribal media journalists are always, frequently, or sometimes intimidated when covering tribal affairs.
With little access to sufficient independent sources of funding, whether via advertising dollars or other means, Mvskoke Media’s funding woes mirror those of local media throughout the United States. But local media outside tribal nations operates against a backdrop of constitutional freedom of press, enshrined in both federal and state constitutions. The Muscogee Nation had no such constitutional guarantee.
As sovereign nations, Native American tribes determine their own laws and constitutions. In 1979, the Muscogee Nation adopted a constitution, which did not contain a provision about free speech. Tribal nations are also subject to the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act, which contains a version of the Bill of Rights, including a free speech protection. However, in 1978, in Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only tribes themselves can enforce rights under the act. In Bad Press, viewers get to watch the citizens of the Muscogee Nation expand their fundamental rights.
The film debuted at the 2023 Sundance Festival, where it won a special jury award for freedom of expression. Director Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, has been recognized with the 2023 Freedom of the Press Local Champion Award from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The film leaves the audience with the sobering message, however: the vast majority of Native American tribes lack laws protecting freedom of the press. Muscogee Media is still the exception, not the rule.
There are live screenings and Q&A sessions with the filmmakers in Chicago November 29–December 3 and in New York City December 1–7. A full schedule is available online.
Nancy Watzman is a consultant working with State Court Report. To learn more about Nancy, please visit her bio page.