I would like to thank AIM Central Texas for releasing the letter below last week calling for a boycott of Indian Country Today Media Network, the largest Native American news site in the country.
The letter cites the termination of my relationship with ICTM and censorship as reasons for the boycott and says:
"We have since learned that ICTM is owned by Ray Halbritter who had previously gained control of the Oneida Tribe using unethical tactics. Jacqueline was fired by Chris Napolitano, the former editor of Playboy Magazine. The majority of the salaried positions at ICTM are held by non-natives in New York City and the Native reporters are columnists paid per story or not at all."
When I first found out that the editor-in-chief of the nation's largest Native American news site was non-Native (Chris Napolitano whose title is "Creative Director"), I suspended judgment. I don't believe that only Native people can do a good job at anything--that would be a ridiculous proposition and swept aside those concerns willing to see what I can learn from this editor. I Googled him and found that his primary experience as an editor was at Playboy from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s and read that he had received accolades for bringing in talented short-story writers.
I now must admit I wonder how much editing mostly white, male, short-story writers in Playboy prepares one for editing the largest Native American newspaper in the United States serving some 566 federally recognized tribes (and many more who are not federally recognized) each with unique cultures and circumstances. It seems like an entirely different thing to me.
It became clear to me after awhile that all the editors, Native and non-Native, deferred to him. He had final say on everything that appeared on the news site. And it also became apparent to me that he was directly under the direction of Oneida Nation CEO Ray Halbritter. The Oneida Nation owns Indian Country Today having purchased it from its founder, the venerable Tim Giago, a Lakota newspaper man of note in Indian Country.
I soon saw that the editors and even business manager I was emailing were mostly non-Native, and I could see on LinkedIn that many were formerly of Playboy. The office, once actually in Indian Country in South Dakota under Giago, was now ensconced in New York City, far from most of the bulk of the remaining large Native reservations and communities in the West.
When I first started in 2013 there were two still two Native editors. One an opinions editor who is extremely frail and was too sick to work perhaps half the time I wrote for them and is nearing retirement. That was perhaps for the best, as I had to demand he stop editing my editorials after he rewrote one of my pieces into a rage-filled diatribe and published it under my byline without my consenting to the extreme edit. I demanded he take it down and he literally taunted me over email. I forwarded these to Napolitano who finally took down the piece. I published it as it was meant to be here: Big Mac and the Redsk*ns: On Leadership and Sovereignty, Fumble and Fame. His version is still at Indianz.com, which re-posts articles from other Native publications. His behavior was entirely unethical.
The other is, I believe, the only Native woman on staff at Indian Country Today. She is also nearing retirement and is not an active editor. She oversees special publications handed out at conventions and paid for by wealthy casino tribes and attends gala dinners to represent the news site. A non-Native writer who went to the ICTM offices in New York City said the white staff referred to her as their "figurehead."
The social media accounts are (according to emails I had with an editor) run from the New York City office and overseen by a non-Native editor there.
The staff consists of these editors in the New York City office, and now, a couple of new male Native editors who appear to be more "at large" while the main staff do the nuts and bolts work. All pieces signed "ICTM Staff" are written by the New York City staff.
Then, when I began referring other Native writers to Indian Country Today, I started hearing back they were not paid. I urged them to invoice and gave them what I had been told were the going rates. One who invoiced received a phone call from the opinions editor who berated him and tried to intimidate him into rescinding the invoice. The writer held strong and would not rescind the invoice and was finally paid. Another had submitted more than one article and did not know she could be paid, I urged her to invoice. She did and was finally paid. (Initially ICTM refused to pay for her first piece). These experiences were troubling to me.
Since I've come forward with my concerns, many Native contributors have messaged me to say they had not been paid at all and were unaware they could be.
Recently, ICTM has come out with articles obliquely addressing my concerns. Two featured Native women writers of Indian Country Today, their faces arranged in Brady Bunch collages. None of these writers are on staff and none are salaried. It didn't occur to me at the time, but when I spoke to another Native woman writer she told me many Native women journalists she spoke to were insulted by the first article. None of the women were journalists or trained as journalists. They were all commentators.
In today's media climate the percentage of journalists of color is falling in newsrooms around the country. In The Investigative Fund's announcement of the new Ida B. Wells Fellowship, they note:
"People of color constitute less than 13 percent of all newsroom jobs, according to an annual survey by the American Society of Newsroom Editors, and 10 percent of supervisors; their presence is even smaller on investigative teams. Women represent 37 percent of newsroom jobs and 35 percent of supervisors. Survey data indicates that fewer than 10 percent of journalists come from a working class background."
What is sad is that these numbers are just as bad--if not worse--over the past several years at one of Native America's largest news site’s newsrooms. A news site that gets more than 1.8 million unique visitors per day. Those numbers outstrip any of their competitors. And I can't help but feel they are running on the fumes of what Indian Country Today used to be, when it was a real newspaper that my family used to get in the mail when I was growing up with news from home. That filled us with such pride. It's these memories that made me want to get my byline there in the first place.
And beyond the issue of equality in the workplace there is the issue of the lack of an independent and free press in Indian Country. Many tribal papers operate under the thumb of tribal government and Indian Country Today Media is no different. Ray Halbritter has not instituted any firewall between himself and the news site. Editors I spoke to, particularly Chris Napolitano, cited Halbritter's wishes constantly. One editor even told me Halbritter refuses to pay legal fees for his writers so they cannot do real investigative work at all.
Native people need an independent press nationwide and accountability in hiring. We do not have it now--not even in our largest news site.
For more detail as to why my relationship with Indian Country Today was terminated please see my blog at TiyospayeNow: Fired by Indian Country Today--Native Journalist Silenced
Jacqueline Keeler is a Navajo/Yankton Dakota writer living in Oregon. Co-founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry--creators of Not Your Mascot. She has been published in Telesur & The Nation and interviewed on MSNBC & Democracy Now.