In the more than 30 years I have been writing I have found that there are those who will launch vicious attacks upon me and most of the attacks are from people with a personal, political axe to grind.
If I responded every time someone wrote or said something about me, I would be spending all of my productive time wallowing in the mud with the attacker. But not all attacks are irresponsible and some are actually constructive criticisms. From these I learn.
Let’s talk about ethics in journalism as applied to Indian country. I find that there are some Indian newspapers and media outlets that will print or put online anything that crosses their desks without checking out the facts. They should remember that everything they receive is not always factual. The first rule I learned when I joined the ranks of journalists is very simple: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
When I or my staff gets an email, article or letter demeaning another Native American journalist or politician, we always attempt to determine if the article is true. That is one reason we never publish unsigned letters or articles. This is not the case with much of the Indian media. If the article or letter is untrue, but titillating and gossipy, titillating and gossipy wins out and the truth loses.
Native newspapers and electronic media in Indian country should be aware that what they publish or reprint, whether it is a letter or a column or editorial, is subject to the libel laws. The media outlets may not have prepared the article internally, but if it is published as fact when it is not true, the newspaper or electronic media, are responsible for its contents.
It is a fact that when Indian newspapers fall away from ethical journalism, there is no source that can hold them responsible. In other words, the things they publish, whether truthful, untruthful or damaging to the reputation of another, suddenly becomes irrelevant. It is up to the Indian media to police itself. Two of the best Indian newspapers that have the highest journalistic and ethical standards are the Native American Times in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and the Todd County Tribune on the Rosebud Reservation. Although not Indian owned, the Tribune has set some very high standards and it reports almost exclusively on Indian issues. But the bloggers are still claiming many readers because of their freedom to bend the truth.
And this has become even more obvious since the inception of the Internet. What passes as truth on many blogs and Internet media outlets is in the eye of the beholder. One man or woman’s truth is another man or woman’s lie.
If a blogger publishes a lie against an individual, a lie intended to damage the professional reputation of that individual, that lie will be out there in outer space forever. There is really no way a person can defend himself against lies on the Internet because the applications of the law are much too vague.
So in this age of high technology the world has turned into a turkey shoot. The only protection afforded anyone under attack by bloggers and others is to develop a very thick skin and keep repeating to oneself the old adage we learned in grade school; “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”
In the 30 years that I have been writing I have fended off many vicious attacks and I have received many, many horrid letters of hate. I have retained my sanity by learning to just ignore them because I have discovered that there is neither protection from these attacks nor any sensible reason to retaliate. People who read such mish mash will make up their own minds about it whether it is true or false and nothing can change that.
Retaliation is debilitating and does far more harm to the retaliator than to the attacker. I have told Native journalism students for many years the story of the turtle, “You can’t move forward unless you stick your neck out.” And when you stick out your neck there will be those that try to chop it off.
And so life goes on. I am very content and happy at where I am in my life right now. At age 75 I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in human beings and I am gratified that there are far more good people out there than the bad and ugly and I will forever be the happy optimist.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)