Rebecca Landsbury-Baker and Joe Peeler’s documentary “Bad Press” offers a surprising microcosm of larger political currents. They note the chilling effect of institutionalized corruption within the Muscogee Nation, whose tribal government leaders seem eager not only to cover up their own misdeeds, but to actively block any journalist from reporting on them. After several years of events, the effect of this cautionary tale is not unlike the rise of similar anti-transparency policies and politicians elsewhere of late: depressing, yet with all the alluring appeal and colorful personalities of any juicy public scandal.
The Muscogee (aka Mvskoke, or Creek) Nation is a federally recognized tribe whose autonomous government sits in Okmulgee, Oklahoma — nearly 200 years after the Indian Removal Act was passed and their ancestors were forcibly relocated via the “Trail of Tears” before but ” “Bad Press” doesn’t concern itself much with history, let alone that far; The present day provides more than enough to chew on. We are now informed that while the US Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the hard-won freedom of Native American tribes from outside oversight means they are not keeping tabs on that document. This means that less than 1% of the 574 tribes officially recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs have any laws guaranteeing freedom of the press.
Among these very few exceptions is the Muscogee Nation, although there is a certain tension between tribal leaders and the Mvskoke media, whose freedom of journalism on various platforms is inherently at odds with its government funding. Our hero is reporter Angel Ellis, who once quit due to backlash to an op-ed he wrote. As the film opens in late 2018, he’s back, a tribal election looms — and the tribe’s legislative National Assembly suddenly repeals its own Free Press Act, without public notice or debate. The tie-breaking vote is cast by the speaker who has the clearest personal reason to quell any “bad press.”
This tragic development — and the bureaucratic censorship that immediately began — led to the resignation of most Mvskoke media workers in protest in the following months. As in the old days, before the tribe ratified its own constitution half a century ago, the investigative reports published, replaced by thinly veiled PR.
But many in the community, as well as some elected officials, are apprehensive, especially since allegations of embezzlement, sexual harassment, etc. are hardly unknown among these political elites. There is an attempt to withdraw, so to speak. As election time approached, an unprecedented number of angry new voters registered — as well as candidates, though some of them repackaged familiar corrupt interests in the new guise of purported reformism.
Elusive and opaque because there are several morally dubious characters, “Bad Press” has no shortage of drama, much of it late in its instinctive display of shamelessness. One cannot help but draw parallels to events in the US political mainstream and beyond, as losing candidates claim a “stolen election.” Some blame news-media messengers for their own publicized “dirty laundry” (such as criminal convictions they won’t discuss), while others who campaigned on high principles seem to be betraying those in office. There is a more or less happy ending for Alice and her colleagues. Yet it is clear that the struggle is not – and indeed may never be – completely over.
For Landsberry-Baker (a Muscogee Creek tribeswoman and executive director of the Native American Journalists Association) and veteran editor Pillar, this first directorial feature is a bit of a “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” The tenor of a classic muckraking narrative like “All the President’s Men.” That faint retro flavor is nicely amplified by Dennis Ojeda’s vintage-sounding electronic score. Tyler Grimm’s widescreen photography has a strikingly spacious feel, reflecting the local landscapes, while Jean Rime’s editing balances narrative propulsion with characterization detail and humor. Like the political skullduggery it portrays, “Bad Press” tells a story we never want to see played out again—yet it’s undeniably entertaining to watch.