Charles Trimble: Facts, truth and ethics in journalism
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Filed Under: Opinion
In the past I had received questions as to why I was so critical of a certain fellow Lakota columnist, Tim Giago. Recently I met a Native American veteran who said that, although he usually enjoyed my columns, that he was troubled by the “fighting” between two Lakotas; he felt that it tended to distract from real issues of importance. I told him that I would refrain, and e-mailed that Tim that I would try to refrain in the future.
However, as a journalist I cannot be silent about experienced and respected colleagues who abuse the power of the press for self-aggrandizement or retribution. Journalists should not tolerate colleagues who show total disregard for accuracy, facts and truth in writing for publication. Also, as a family of journalists, the Native American Journalists Association must address issues of ethics in the abuse of the inherent power we hold, which is the power of the press, reaching thousands of readers who want to trust what we write.
Accordingly, I feel I must criticize a recent column by Tim Giago in which he presents inaccuracies and untruths. Aside from the issues of fact and truth and ethics, this issue is of very personal meaning to me.
Giago recently published a column which was apparently meant to help justify the crusade he announced as the reason for his getting back into the newspaper publishing business – that of riding herd on tribal governments to keep them from “running roughshod over their citizens.” In that column he talks about nepotism, which he wrote, runs deep in Indian country.
He gives as an example his first taste of tribal politics in 1983, when he ran for the office of vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He tells of election night when the votes were being tallied and of him carrying all traditional districts. He tells of a race that ran neck-and-neck until it came to the districts of Pine Ridge and Manderson, where the Iyeska votes did him in, giving the race to the incumbent, John Steel, by a narrow margin of 90 votes. He also told that he received reports that in the Pine Ridge (White Clay) District, many of the votes for him were dumped in trashcans.
In my office archives I have the entire run of Mr. Giago’s Lakota Times, from the very first edition to the last. I often research those old issues, and I found first of all that there was no OST tribal election in 1983. And the election, in which Giago did run for Vice President in 1984, didn’t play out as dramatically as he describes. The margin of his defeat – in a campaign in which the full power of his newspaper was used for his benefit, was actually 380+ votes, which on the Pine Ridge Reservation might be considered a landslide. Nor was there any indication that he carried the “traditionalist” districts.
I realize that history is always kinder to us than how we see it. And Giago can be forgiven for some hedging on facts, even though he had in his columns prided himself for checking the facts (as he has admonished younger journalists, “even if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”)
But a more disturbing story my research recalled in the Lakota Times was that of two years later, when Giago decided to run for the big prize – presidency of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. In that race he withdrew early because, as he claimed, one of his opponents, Shirley Plume, had threatened to disenfranchise voters in several districts including the entire LaCreek District of the reservation in which he resided at the time. She did this, according to him, to take those votes from him.
Mrs. Plume was serving on the Tribal Council at the time. In the editorial announcing his withdrawal, Giago said that he had learned from other (unnamed) Council members that she was proposing a resolution to take away the voting rights of tribal members residing in ceded areas, which would include most of the LaCreek district. His withdrawal, he wrote, was done reluctantly, only to save the franchise of the people of the LaCreek and other districts, and to spare them the huge legal costs of fighting her actions.
In a subsequent edition of Lakota Times, Shirley Plume purchased ad space to respond to Giago’s allegation. This she did because, she claimed, Giago would not publish her response in an open letter. In her ad she denied the rumor on which Giago based his allegation, and explained that he had never bothered to call her to verify the rumor. She explained that neither the Council nor the President had the power to disenfranchise any single tribal member, let alone an entire district. Further, she had gotten an affidavit signed by all Council members that none of them had informed Giago of any such threat on her part.
Nevertheless, Giago responded in an editorial in the same edition in which her ad appeared that he “stands by his story.”
It appeared that Giago had taken this dramatic action to get out of a race in which it was obvious he could not win. As a trained and experienced journalist with the motto “Check it out,” he failed to contact Mrs. Plume to see what the truth was. Nor did he check out the Tribal Constitution or the law to see if she could carry through on the threat Giago alleged she had made. Besides, he could have made it a major issue against her and gotten much support for his campaign if he could prove she had made such an arrogant, unfounded threat.
But he chose to leave the race and obviously decided to take Mrs. Plume down with him. His dislike for her was presumably that she had consistently opposed his bid to have the Lakota Times named official OST newspaper, and he had attacked her repeatedly in his editorials. This is all in the old, yellowed issues of Mr. Giago’s Lakota Times.
Although she lost the election, Shirley Plume handily won the LaCreek District, even despite Giago’s claim that she had tried to take away their most treasured tribal citizens’ right, the right to vote.
Shirley Plume died in 2004, after having served many years as a federal official, and as a member of the Tribal Council and on the board of several Reservation educational and social services organizations. She was my sister, and I was deeply hurt that such injustice had happened to her. However, the more important issue to me was Mr. Giago’s use of the Press for personal political purposes, and for vengeful retaliation.
This brings up the important issue of media ethics in the Indian Press, and the question as to whether members of those media – both print and broadcast media, should choose to run for tribal or public office. This is especially important for those who have a wide readership and total control of a powerful weapon such as a newspaper.
Giago’s bizarre entry into the Senate race against Democrat Tom Daschle, was done, as he said, to force the Senator’s promise to be more supportive of Native American issues. It is highly unlikely that his entry into the race had any effect in causing Daschle’s loss to his Republican opponent; but if it had, he helped take the office out of the hands of a powerful and proven friend of all Indian tribes.
The Native American Journalists Association has recently opened a Member Community website to foster networking and sharing among NAJA members. This will provide an excellent forum for discussion on ethics issues such as the abuse of power of the press for personal, political or attack purposes. And perhaps it can help with peer pressure to help Indian journalists in questions of honesty and integrity of the Indian Press. I hope that it will be used accordingly.
Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was a principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970 and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is iktomisweb.com.