Tim Giago: Indian Country Today denies readers the right to know

In response to a column I wrote last week about the lack of freedom of the press at Indian Country Today, Ray Cook, Op-ed Editor of This Week in Indian Country, ends his column of allegations with, “If those sound like sentiments of the easily manipulated, I’ll eat my hat.”

I wonder if Mr. Cook enjoys eating his hat raw, or if he prefers a pinch of salt and a little Tabasco sauce? He had better get out his knife and fork. His article had so many holes in it that I hardly know where to begin in response.

First off, Cook lists as one of his credentials that he is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. That’s a big fib, Mr. Cook. I was there at the beginning and when NAJA held its first official meeting on the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma in 1984 to form our first board of directors where I was elected as NAJA’s first president, you were nowhere in sight. It probably looks good on your resume.

Cook brings up all of the great writers that have contributed articles to Indian Country Today over the years, writers like Kara Briggs, Mark Trahant, Tim Johnson, and Jose Barreiro and I have read all of them and commend them for their articles.

Now suppose just one of these great writers had included a comment like, “I think Ray Halbritter is a little dictator” in their columns. Would that column have been published in Indian Country Today? As I said in my column on ICT, I have published letters to the editor and columns that referred to me as a son of a bitch and worse. Now that is what is known as freedom of the press. Well, you can bet your hat that any Native writer, no matter how great or respected, that included anything critical of Halbritter or of Indian Country Today in their writings, would have been censored, pure and simple.

Now here is where the “impossible to understand” portion of this column begins. Cook wrote, “Has ICT printed letter to the editor in the past 13 years? No, and there is logistical reasons for that decision. We do, however, read every letter sent us and take most of them seriously and the rest with a grain of salt.” I find it really hard to stop laughing at this point.

Indian Country Today can be proud of the fact that it is probably the only newspaper in America that does not print “letters to the editor.” Oh, but I almost forgot that “there is logistical reasons for that decision.” I wish Mr. Cook would explain those “logistical reasons” to the thousands of Native Americans reading this column.

Defending the premise that stood as the Oneida foundation of ICT, Cook now uses a quote that goes, “We treasure the challenge. The covenant is to uphold the recognition that Indian country is part and parcel of the central formative and original fiber of America and to assert that Native America has deep roots in the land and in the places of origin. Everything else flows from there.” Say what? Now what in the heck does that have to do with censorship?

A part and parcel of America is “freedom of the press.” It doesn’t matter that the editors of ICT are so condescending as to actually take the time to read the letters to the editor and brush aside the subscribers to the paper who would have dearly loved to read the letters also, but to brush them aside like so many bugs is reprehensible. What that says to the ICT readers is that our editors are smart enough to read the letters to the editor, but they may be a bit too much for you.

Unsteady is the crown that cannot bear criticism, constructive or destructive. Letters to the editor are the connections a newspaper makes with its readers. Letters are the pulse of the community. The letters to the editor respond to the news articles, the columns and the opinions published in the newspaper and they allow the editor to know if his newspaper is reaching into the hearts and minds of his readers. They let the editor know if the newspaper is achieving its goals of educating and informing. And just as important, it allows the readers to respond to any article they find to be untruthful.

Without including uncensored letter to the editor, Indian Country Today is denying its readers the right to know. It is not only censoring the letter writers, it is also censoring its subscribers. The early motto of Indian Country Today when I owned it, a motto posted on its mast, was “Standing up for the people’s right to know,” and I am ashamed to say that this majestic motto has been crushed under the weight of the Oneida Nation autocracy.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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