Strictly speaking, Native American reservations are not American soil. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that many Indian tribes do not have press freedom codified into their constitutions. This was the case of the Muscogee Creek nation in Oklahoma, where, in 2018, the tribe’s government repealed free speech protections for the Muscogee Nation News. That led to a ground-up citizens campaign to restore press freedoms so the Muscogee citizens could learn how their government was operating.
This intriguing detour into freedoms we mostly take for granted is the subject of “Bad Press,” a new documentary that screened at Sundance this past week. Co-director Becca Landsberry-Baker, a former staffer of the Muscogee Nation News now living in California, knew she had to return to her tribal land to document this rather important campaign.
“I had actually worked previously with our participants…and been part of the editorial team facing the issues that are really unique and nuanced in Indian country, including the censorship that we look at in our film and the transparency issues covering tribal elections,” Landsberry-Baker said. “Also in my role as executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, free press in Indian country is one of the most important topics that we talk about.”
Landsberry-Baker got to work shortly after the press protections were revoked following the 2018 tribal elections. She found an enthusiastic collaborator in Joe Peeler, who joined her in Oklahoma and was immediately enraptured by Angel Ellis, a reporter for Muscogee News who became one of the doc’s main subjects.
“That first introduction that I got to Angel is exactly who you see on screen,” said Peeler. “Fast-talking, smoking, swearing, all of that. And also what came through is that not only is she so funny, she’s also extremely passionate about the Muscogee Creek citizens.
“Meeting her really solidified [that] this is going to be our person. She is going to be the one fighting the fight to bring back free press to the tribe. And all of the pieces came together after that.”
Commencing in 2019, Peeler and Landsberry-Baker shot for three years. Peeler said the lockdowns of 2020 actually helped the “longitudinal” nature of “Bad Press” in that it opened up the canvas to larger issues affecting the tribe–as well as delayed any potential changes to those free press laws.
“It’s something that literally everyone in the world has gone through, so we didn’t really want a moment where ‘now we have to wear masks,’” Peeler said. “[The pandemic] sidelined a lot of the government work; the government of the Muscogee Creek nation needed to focus on other things. It really put Muscogee Media on the backburner.”
Midway through “Bad Press,” a man named David Hill successfully runs to become principal chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, largely on a platform of promising to reverse press censorship. However, as the film continues, Hill is shown to be a politician like any other: balancing the needs of the citizenry with the desires of the powerful tribal members who would rather not have their dirty laundry aired out.
“I think there will always be challenges at some level to the free press and how that plays out according to the national council or the chief’s office. It’s something very unique to Indian country,” Landsberry-Baker said, adding that “the tribal administration under David Hill has been pretty friendly to free press efforts generally, I would say.”
“Bad Press” relates that Ellis, the vocal reporter, was essentially doxed by members of the tribal elite for her reporting. While trying to get another job, the employer was warned by an irate tribal member that Ellis was “a shit-stirring asshole.” Given the disinformation campaign waged against Ellis, it was incumbent to ask Peeler and Landsberry-Baker if they worry about online disinformation over their film. However, they don’t seem especially concerned.
“The important thing I’d like people to take away, especially my fellow tribal citizens, is that free press in Indian country supports tribal sovereignty, because it brings accountability to the tribal government officials that are supposed to be representing the citizens,” said Landsberry-Baker. “Information from your tribal media is so important because it educates and informs those citizens so they know what their tribal governments are doing.
“The press is so important generally, no matter [if you live] in Indian country or outside of it, but especially when you are covering an election where one vote [or] 10 votes can make all the difference.”
Though she lives near Hollywood, Landsberry-Baker still owns a home on the tribe’s Oklahoma reservation. She feels connected to the Muscogee Nation, and hopes that “Bad Press” will allow audiences not only to get to know her tribe, but the issues affecting all of America’s Native peoples–and reassert the importance of press freedom for all Americans.
“I’m particularly excited about showcasing the diversity we have within Indian country, within the Muscogee Nation,” she said. “Every tribe looks to every other tribe…so now there’s this road map for enacting free press protections for all of Indian country. Other tribes are looking at how they can enact their own laws or rewrite their own constitutions to add these projections because the citizens are saying ‘This is something that we want, and we need information; we need it to be factual and correct and unbiased. It’s a service to our citizens.’”