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‘Bad Press’ review: a dazzling exposé on democracy and journalistic freedom

Freedom of the press – which most Americans assume is an inalienable right guaranteed by the First Amendment since it was ratified in 1791 – does not, in fact, apply to anyone living in the United States. If you didn’t know that (and this reviewer certainly didn’t), what happens in the new documentary Bad presswhich premiered in competition at Sundance will be vital to you.

The film is set on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation in Oklahoma, where federal rules such as the First Amendment do not apply. press are written in tribal law.

Bad press

It comes down to

Not all truths are self-evident.

Event location: Sundance Film Festival (American Documentary Competition)
Drivers: Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, Joe Peeler

1 hour 38 minutes

What follows is a long battle that has all the hallmarks of a small-town political thriller: corrupt officials, overturned elections, reporters fighting for their rights at the risk of their own livelihood… It’s a story we’ve seen before, but never in this kind of setting. Even if the Muscogee live under separate laws, they are clearly not immune to the kind of struggles currently being waged in the rest of the country at a time when people are risking themselves for the truth to prevail.

It all started in 2018 when journalists joined Mvskoke Media – “Mvskoke” is the phonetic spelling of the Muscogee tribe in the native language – a local newspaper and news service that had covered tribal events for decades found that the 1979 “Free Press Act” guaranteeing their protection would are withdrawn by those in power.

Why that happened becomes clear when we delve deeper into the hard work that Mvskoke Media reporters like the outspoken Angel Ellis, who is very much the heroine of Bad presshad been going on for years: exposing embezzlement scandals and other instances of fraud among politicians, including members of the Muscogee (Creek) National Council and the Principal Chief himself, who serves as the tribe’s elected president.

Directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler use Ellis’ struggle as a starting point to briefly explore the history of independent newspapers on Native American lands, where freedom of the press was not guaranteed by a single constitution of the more than 500 tribes that currently exist. It is a reality that Ellis and her colleagues, including Jerrad Moore, who produces and directs news segments, and Gary Fife, who hosts a radio program, decide to finally ask themselves when their jobs are in danger.

After the 2018 repeal, the tribal government is gutted Mvskoke Media of the patronage it once had, and demanded it focus more on positive narratives about the nation. “We should call ourselves a PR department if we’re not doing the news,” says Ellis, later joking that they’ve basically been asked “to put out polished turds every day.” After a dozen employees leave the news service, Ellis decides to take her fight to the National Council, demanding that a free press statute be finally incorporated into the constitution, which would make it a first for a Native American tribe.

The plot thickens as elections for the next chief executive come around, with some candidates supporting the measure and others adamantly against it. Power politics, even in such a tight-knit community as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, are becoming apparent, and the lack of a newspaper to explain what is actually happening is a major problem.

It would be unfair to spoil Bad press by telling how the elections went. Suffice to say, in what has become the rule since President Trump’s administration, results are discredited, ballots are recounted, and the validity of tribal governance is brought into play. That is the fate of the reporters Mvskoke Media will be decided by an election that they themselves could not adequately report on is a disturbing irony that escapes no one.

So the Landberry-Baker and Peeler documentary is the perfect illustration of what happens when you dismantle the powers of the Fourth and Fifth States and end up endangering democracy, which is something everyone in America should be concerned about . Fortunately, journalists like Ellis are around to expose the truth and fight for it, even if they risk a lot in doing so. But as one Muscogee man tells the reporter early on, “If people don’t like you, then you’re doing your job.”

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