A surprising microcosm of larger political currents surfaces in Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s documentary “Bad Press.” They observe the chilling effect of institutionalized corruption within the Muscogee Nation, whose tribal government leaders appear inclined not just to cover their own misdeeds, but to actively block any journalists from reporting on them. Following events over the course of several years, this cautionary tale has an impact not unlike watching the rise of similar anti-transparency policies and politicians elsewhere of late: dismaying, yet with all the lurid appeal and colorful personalities of any juicy public scandal.
The Muscogee (aka Mvskoke, or Creek) Nation is a federally recognized tribe whose autonomous government is seated in Okmulgee, Oklahoma — the state its ancestors were forcibly relocated to via the “Trail of Tears” after the Indian Removal Act was passed nearly 200 years ago. But “Bad Press” doesn’t concern itself much with history, let alone that far back; the present day provides more than enough to chew on. We’re informed right away that while the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of press, Native American tribes’ hard-won independence from external oversight means they are not beholden to that document. It also means that less than 1% of the 574 tribes officially acknowledged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs have any laws guaranteeing press liberty.
Among those very few exceptions is the Muscogee Nation, though there is a certain tension between tribal leaders and Mvskoke Media, whose journalistic independence on various platforms is inherently at odds with its government funding. Our protagonist is reporter Angel Ellis, who once left in the wake of spiteful backlash to an exposé she wrote. As the film begins in late 2018, she’s back, a tribal election is approaching — and the tribe’s legislative National Council abruptly repeals its own Free Press Act, without public notice or debate. The tie-breaking vote is cast by a Speaker with the most evident personal reason to suppress any “bad press.”
This shocking development — and the bureaucratic censorship that immediately ensues — results in most of Mvskoke Media’s staff quitting in protest over the next months. As in days of old, before the tribe ratified its own constitution a half-century earlier, investigative reporting is out, replaced by thinly veiled PR.
But many in the community, as well as some elected officials, are appalled, particularly since charges of embezzlement, sexual harassment and so forth are hardly unknown amongst this political elite. There are efforts to repeal the repeal, so to speak. When election time approaches, an unprecedented number of angry new voters register — as well as candidates, though some of those turn out to be simply repackaging familiar corrupt self-interest in a fresh guise of alleged reformism.
Elusive and opaque as several ethically dubious characters here are, “Bad Press” has no lack of drama, much of it arriving late in shameless displays of connivance. One can’t help but draw parallels to events in the U.S. political mainstream and beyond, as losing candidates make “stolen election” claims. Some blame the news-media messenger for their own aired “dirty laundry” (such as felony convictions they’d rather not discuss), while others who’d campaigned on high principles seem to betray them in office. There’s a more-or-less happy ending for Ellis and her colleagues. Yet it’s clear the fight isn’t — and indeed may never again be — fully over.
This first directorial feature for Landsberry-Baker (a Muscogee Creek tribeswoman and the executive director of the Native American Journalists Assosciation) and veteran editor Peeler has the slightly giddy “are you seeing what I’m seeing?” tenor of a classic muckraking narrative like “All the President’s Men.” That faint retro flavor is nicely amplified by Denisse Ojeda’s vintage-sounding electronic score. There’s an attractively spacious feel to Tyler Graim’s widescreen photography, mirroring local landscapes, while Jean Rheem’s editing balances characterful detail and humor with considerable narrative propulsion. Like the political skullduggery it depicts, “Bad Press” tells a tale we’d love never to see played out again— yet watching it is undeniably entertaining.