America’s journalists are truly and deeply sorry for their behaviour during the election. They are sorry they failed to see the simmering animosity and racism that helped Donald J Trump take the White House. They are apologetic for staying within their own social circles and ignoring disparate points of view. They have asked forgiveness for misleading the public into thinking that Mr Trump could never hold office and pledged that when he takes office on Friday, they will hold him accountable, come hell or high water.
Please … This behaviour isn’t new.
For months, protests outside the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation transfixed the public, exposing US audiences to the elaborate political, environmental and cultural issues American Indians face. However, much of the reporting was superficial and journalists often failed to see the social or historical environments that created the incident at Standing Rock.
The battle ended in December when the US Army Corp of Engineers stopped construction, and since then little follow-up to the story has been made.
Granted, a few news outlets have expanded their scope to look at similar protests brewing across the country, notably opposition to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in Texas, but the problem with looking for the next Standing-Rock-style pipeline protest is that reporters ignore all the other ways Indigenous people get screwed.
Injustice to Indigenous people
Take a look at the looming repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). When the act was passed in 2010, it permanently re-authorised the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act (IHCIA) and created a funding stream to the Indian Health Service through Medicaid expansion. With no plan on what will replace the ACA, there are grave implications for the IHCIA, “potentially stripping $800m from the Indian health system that is by all measures underfunded,” writes reporter Mark Trahant.
“The Indian Health Service is funded by appropriations,” Trahant reports. “Congress sets the spending and the services are based on that amount. When there is not enough funding, services are rationed.”
Created in 1955, the Indian Health Service provides medical care to tribal members across the US but has its origins in treaties made between tribal governments and the federal government: in exchange for land cessions, the US often agreed to provide services such as education, housing and healthcare. Today, those services are barely funded, but America stretches from sea to shining sea.
Energy development promises to offer even more twists and turns for tribal communities. Our new president Donald Trump is a friend and ally of the oil and gas industry and his choice for Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, is an ardent supporter of energy development.
While Zinke’s record in Indian Country has been notable – he has supported tribal water rights, worked to secure grants and funding for tribes, and supported federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Montana – he also “supports an all of the above energy policy” and is a “strong advocate for American energy independence and reducing our reliance on foreign oil.”
That probably spells more coal, oil, gas, fracking and pipelines, and when energy clashes with tribal sovereignty, energy tends to win.
Meanwhile the newly elected chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, North Dakota Republican Senator John Hoeven, is already raising eyebrows. Hoeven, like Trump, is a supporter of the Dakota Access Pipeline and has characterised DAPL opposition as unlawful and violent, “needlessly putting people at risk including tribal members, protesters, law enforcement officers, construction workers, and area residents”.
In other words, the man now responsible for overseeing matters important to the nation’s 567 federally recognised tribes has publicly, and actively, opposed hundreds of tribal governments and organisations adamant on stopping construction for the benefit of an oil company.
What does all this have to do with the Fourth Estate? It is more important than ever for journalists to focus on what Trump’s administration is doing in Washington and to examine how government policies affect real people. Indian Country is a great example of where solid reporting is desperately needed, but for the industry to rededicate itself to the principles of journalism, radical changes must be made.
Journalism and diversity
Journalism’s real weakness lies in its lack of diversity. Nationwide, about 26 percent of local police officers are people of colour. Nearly 22 percent of Congress are also “of colour”, but at daily newspapers and in radio newsrooms, minorities make up only 13 percent of employees. It is a little better in television newsrooms where 22 percent of journalists are people of colour, but compare that with national statistics where ethnic minorities account for nearly 40 percent of the population, the picture becomes clear: journalism isn’t much different than any other institution of power in the United States.
If journalism hopes to survive, it must own up to its own inability to hire or hear diverse voices – the voices of a few million Indigenous people who may lose access to medical services, or the voices of Trump’s many supporters.
But it must also own up to its own role as a colonial institution. Stories are routinely harvested from Native communities by non-Native journalists, exported to newsrooms and “processed” for the benefit of non-Native audiences. Sadly, the word “Native” can be substituted with nearly any other ethnic group in the country.
Is this the kind of model that promotes a strong, democratic institution? Do these practices make for an ethical profession? Can they be fixed simply? I think so.
With Donald J Trump as our new president, there will be more lies, more bizarre press conferences, and more ridiculous tweets. Meanwhile, budgets will be cut, new pipelines will be approved, environmental regulations will be loosened or slashed, and American citizens will be forced to deal with those impacts.
To see those affects, journalists won’t need to see things differently, they’ll need new sets of eyes everywhere, from immigrant communities to Indian Country.
Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma. He serves as Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.