The last time I saw Marley Shebala, she was at the airport. She couldn’t get her ATM card to work. She was facing a series of flights home to Arizona. And she was nearly cashless after a week at a journalism seminar. It was the week I was losing my job at the P-I, and I was about to go on unemployment. But I gave her $20 anyway. She’d been so cool to have as a partner in learning at the New York Times Institute on the Environment.
I’ve run into Marley over the years at a number of journalism events and had come to understand that I could always look forward to provocative questions and exciting comments from her. She’s a pistol of a reporter for the Navajo Times and, as High Country News put it, an “undaunted muckraker.”
So I was really glad to see her comment in a piece the other day by The Daily Yonder on Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr.’s support for the Hopi Tribal Council’s recent unanimous decision to ban environmentalist groups from their reservation in Arizona.
The tribal leaders, you see, are angry about the greens’ efforts to shut down the the Navajo Generation Station, a coal-fired power plant near Page, Arizona. Earlier, enviros had been successful in closing a coal-fired plant on Hopi land. And they’re opposing a third coal-fired plant in Indian Country, the Desert Rock Energy project.
The Hopi rez is an island within the larger but separately governed Navajo Nation. Replicating the Hopis’ position on the Navajo reservation would have a much bigger impact, because the Navajo rez is big enough to house a quarter-million people spread across parts of three states.
Shirley’s pronouncement was big news. Google News counts 234 stories on it, as of this evening.
But Marley Shebala has brought down two Navajo Nation presidents who deserved it. And she didn’t have kind words for the way the MSM handled Shirley’s pronouncement:
Can you imagine journalists simply reporting verbatim a press release from President Obama without doing some sort of background on the information presented in the document? … There is a big difference between elected leadership and traditional leadership in Indian Country; reporters need to know this and dig deeper into the community when reporting on political issues.
Writing for The Daily Yonder, Mary Annette Pember goes on:
Shebala says that the mainstream press too often resorts to this kind of superficial reporting in handling stories from Indian Country. Journalists forget that tribal politicians, while Navajo or Hopi, or whatever, are still politicians trying to put their motivations, projects and government leadership in the best possible light.
Journalists would never assume that the mayor of a city or governor of a state speaks for the entire population. Journalists should use that same level of skepticism when covering tribes, she says.
Yes! Let’s treat Indian reservations like they’re part of America. Because they are.
I urge you to go on to read The Daily Yonder’s whole piece, which outlines a history of grassroots environmental activism among the Native Americans of the Southwest.
And I have to say that, as a person who just discovered The Daily Yonder (courtesy High Country News’ tweet — thank you!), I’m impressed. It’s one of those newfangled independent journalism outfits like InvestigateWest, this one dedicated to covering rural America. I’ll be coming back now, and looking for more wisdom like that espoused so eloquently by Marley Shebala.
Robert – Regarding Mary Pember’s piece containing the Shebala comment you noted: Two questions immediately come to mind when reading Pember’s piece. 1) Why did she not begin its first sentence with “Smog hangs over the Grand Canyon, mostly the result of a nearby forest fire”?, and 2) Is it her intention to suggest visible smog from the Navajo Generating Station increases in density over areas like the Grand Canyon, when no such smoke is seen immediately above its stacks, as seen in the photo at the USA Today link you provided (or seen daily by motorists driving through the Page area)?
Interesting echo chamber effect when both Ms Pember and Ms Shebala speak about lazy journalists’ treatment of news from Indian Country, along with Brenda Norrell’s Oct 1 ‘journalists regurgitate Navajo press release’ story, titled “Lazy Journalists are the Darlings of the Corporations”: http://www.counterpunch.org/norrell10012009.html
Shebala’s quote is worth repeating, “There is a big difference between elected leadership and traditional leadership in Indian Country; reporters need to know this and dig deeper into the community when reporting on political issues. Journalists would never assume that the mayor of a city or governor of a state speaks for the entire population.” Add to that Norrell’s gripe about simply regurgitating lines from top leaders, “Too often, this means publishing the lies of politicians and corporations. It is censorship, silencing the voices of the people.”
Yet do we see environmental journalists deeper into the community of IPCC scientists, National Academy of Scientists’ members, American Geophysical Union members, and American Chemical Society members, when each group’s leaders or spokespersons make statements about global warming that the rank-and-file don’t agree with? Are you able to cite any instances of in-depth analysis of that in the mainstream media?